22 Mar

Smart Green Roof Project: Chapter 2


This spring, greenSTEM is delighted to have guest bloggers! We’re working with the Fairmount Water Works and high school students from SLA Beeber to create a smart green roof model using microcontrollers and sensors.

After researching green roofs and getting some exposure to Arduino programming, we are beginning to build the model. Kevin Magerr, an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), delivered the skeleton of the model: an acrylic box with different compartments for the soil/plants, electronics, and a water pump. Also joining us was Cara Albright, a PhD candidate with the Villanova Urban Stormwater Partnership. These experts helped guide the model’s development.

  • “We got our green roof model and it looks amazing. Kevin, an EPA engineer, and Cara, a student at Villanova University, helped us make plans for our green roof model.”—Tyheim


One way to monitor the effectiveness of a green roof is to look at how much water it can hold. Above, we plan to install a tube that acts as a well in the system. It will fill up with water and we can use an ultrasonic distance sensor to capture the level of water in the well. We talked about how the sensor works—it uses sound signals that bounce off the surface of the water, operating much the same way a bat uses echolocation to detect its surroundings—and experimented with different sizes of tubes to determine the most accurate measurements.

Terrance and Tyheim also began to wire an LCD display that will create a readout of the water level in real time. All of our prototyping is done with breadboards and jumper wires; once all the elements are in place, we will solder these circuits together to be able to look at multiple sensors and displays: water level, temperature, and soil moisture, for example.
Helpful links:
Ultrasonic (ping) sensor tutorial and code
LCD display tutorial and code
13 Feb

Smart Green Roof Project: Chapter 1

This spring, greenSTEM is delighted to have guest bloggers! We’re working with the Fairmount Water Works and high school students from SLA Beeber to create a smart green roof model using microcontrollers and sensors.

Fairmount Water Works is excited to partner with Matt Fritch and the Philadelphia Water Department to host four high school interns from Science Leadership Academy at Beeber. Chelby, Ashton, Tyheim and Terrance come to FWW weekly to meet with Matt, FWW educator Rachel O., and volunteer Billy K. We began the internship back in October, but we are just getting blogging now. Here are some observations from the past few months.

We began with tours of the Water Works and set some goals:

  • “The Fairmount Water Works can help me with my goals in many ways. I have learned to be a better person thanks to this place, it helped to shape who I am. Also, when I go to college, I might study to be a doctor or scientist so this helps for that.” —Tyheim
  • “FWW can help me meet different people and build connections.”—Chelby

We learned a bit about the history of FWW, walked around and learned about this historic place:

  • “One cool thing I learned was that people used to drink water straight from the river….When people went in boats in the river they boated in canals so they wouldn’t crash into the dam.” —Chelby
  • “There used to be seals here! And there used to be a pool area.” —Tyheim

Now it’s time to get to work. Matt is teaching us about Arduinos and how they are used to monitor different sites. Rachel is still trying to understand this, but she likes when Matt said that the Arduino is a really dumb computer. It can basically tell its sensor to do one thing: light on/light off, temperature readings, moisture, etc. We’ll be using our Arduinos to connect to sensors to monitor soil moisture. To water or NOT to water? That is the question.

We started learning about Arduinos and how to set them up to do different things. We learned to solder the appropriate parts.

  • “Today we learned a little about Arduino and what it does. We learned that the soil moisture sensor senses the amount of water in the ground. We will probably be using this for our green roof. We also learned about other things the arduino can do with sensors.” —Tyheim

*We met on January 18 at Cira Green to look at the green roof. Rachel learned that the roof is designed to hold 500 people DANCING! She is hoping to get invited to that party.

  • “It’s really cool, but not at all what I expected. It is like a big park floating over the city. The views are fantastic. It cost $12 million to build.” —Chelby
  • “During our trip to the green roof I learned that the soil is being held up by flattened milk crates. The rain water is held up in a tank that is used for such things as toilet water.” —Terrance

We now have to learn a bit more about how green roofs are constructed, so we spent a few days researching. We’ll be making a model that can sit on a tabletop. Sensors will be incorporated into this model so we can tell the water level in the model. We have been practicing coding to make this sensor work.

17 Nov

Sensors Working Overtime

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Back in June, greenSTEM helped students install web-connected soil moisture sensors at the Penn Alexander school and the Franklin Institute. These Soil Cell units were placed in garden beds and operate the same way as PWD’s other devices (which monitor green stormwater infrastructure), but with a slight difference: They use solar panels to keep the batteries charged. Over the last six months, these sensors have been virtually maintenance-free, requiring no battery changes.

Of course, we’re always making improvements. Above, SLA Beeber student Brandon soldered permanent connections from a soil moisture sensor and a thermistor (temperature sensor) to the circuit board. He’s also designed and built a post structure to elevate and mount the solar panel in an optimal position to receive sunlight and keep the Soil Cell charged. Installation is planned for the spring, and we’ll be exploring ways to do more with these sensor units that are constantly being charged. (Hint: The sensors are currently “talking” to us; what if we started talking to them?)

Check out the live soil and temperature data from the Franklin Institute’s ozone garden here.

02 Jun

SIM Goes To State

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Last week, students from Philadelphia’s Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School brought SIM (Sewer Inlet Monitor) to a statewide STEM competition in Lancaster where students from all over Pennsylvania came to present their inventions and innovations. The event was the culmination of months of work for the students in the STEM Challenge Club. The 10th graders identified a problem in their community (littering), conducted research and analysis on littering behavior and pathways (lots of trash ends up in sewer inlets), and came up with a solution: a waterproof sensor that detects sewer inlet blockages and reports it to the web and social media.

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Partnering with Philadelphia Water, the STEM students devised SIM (above), an Arduino-based distance sensor that communicates via the 2G cellular network (yes, SIM has its own SIM card). When SIM senses an inlet blocked with trash, it sends data to the cloud storage site ThingSpeak and then begins a conversation on the messaging app Slack. The intent is to draw attention to littering behavior via social media and organized citizens’ action. Imagine if individuals adopted an inlet from a network of SIM devices shown on the map below:

SIM_map

Now imagine how much that would be appreciated by Philadelphia Water’s inlet cleaning crews, who removed more than 21 million pounds of debris from the city’s 79,000 sewer inlets in 2014. Not to mention the fish and other aquatic life in our rivers and streams, where the trash from sewer inlets can end up.

Alas, SIM did not end up winning the state competition—congratulations to the winning teams and all who participated. Our Philly students created something valuable to their community, demonstrated thoughtful work, and showed up ready to be challenged—this is what stewardship is all about. Below, an early SIM prototype being tested in the snow:

SIM_testing

Expect to see a DIY guide for building your own SIM soon!

22 Mar

Root Kit 2016

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As seen on Twitter: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaking before an image of our very own Root Kit. Mayor Kenney was on hand to kick off last weekend’s Democracy Hackathon, and greenSTEM is very proud to have worked with civic hackers at Code for Philly to develop the hardware and software that went behind the Root Kit, a web-connected soil moisture sensor for rain gardens and other green infrastructure. If you’re looking to get involved with technology projects that benefit your neighbors and the city, stop by one of Code for Philly’s weekly meetups—no coding experience required.

But the point of this post is not merely to tout our product placement. A next generation of the Root Kit is coming. It’s even more advanced than the Soil Cell. It’s more powerful, less expensive, and open source all the way. As always, we’ll document how to build one of your own once we figure out all the problems with it have some nice photos.

10 Mar

Hacking a Rain Barrel

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Wish we could say no rain barrels were harmed during this week’s minicourse at SLA Beeber but, as the photo above indicates, that simply isn’t true. Ninth grade students have begun to imagine a smarter, more functional rain barrel for Philadelphia residents and businesses to manage stormwater on their property. This week, one group of students worked in the makerspace to build an enclosure prototype for the rain barrel while the other group investigated different sensors to measure water level in the barrel and figure out how the sensors fit into the physical design.

As with last year’s solar-powered birdhouses, greenSTEM is collaborating with Public Workshop to guide the students in designing and building a functional addition to their schoolyard and garden. We’ll be documenting the progress here—sharing the designs, code and challenges along the way.

Learn more about rain barrels and Philadelphia Water’s Rain Check program here.

05 Feb

SIM City: Philly Students Debut Sewer Inlet Monitor at STEM Competition

MBACS_2016

Move over, Ninja Turtles—there’s a new hard-shelled, talkative superhero in the city sewer system. Meet SIM (Sewer Inlet Monitor), defender of our rivers and streams, guardian against street flooding, and unrepentant tattletale. SIM texts or emails when sewer inlets become clogged with trash, alerting the public when cleaning is needed.

Yesterday, five 10th-grade students from Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School presented SIM at the regional portion of the 2016 Governor’s STEM Competition. At the School District of Philadelphia, judges from the Mayor’s Office of Education and Drexel University awarded the students first prize; they will advance to the statewide competition in May to represent Philadelphia. (Full disclosure: They faced no competition from other teams. Full disclosure, Part II: These students worked after school, they came into school on days off, they worked after full days of standardized testing, so … they won and they earned it.)

MBACS_SIM

The photo above shows SIM on the outside; it’s camouflaged, waterproof, and rugged enough for, well, a sewer inlet. The device’s inner workings are, for now, a trade secret. (We’ll open-source the project shortly after the state competition.) The Mariana Bracetti students worked with Philadelphia Water‘s greenSTEM project to research a community problem (excessive trash near the school, right across the street from Frankford Creek), learn basic coding and circuit-building, develop a prototype, test, and revise the final product.

In addition to presenting SIM to the judges and conducting a succesful live demo, the students were issued a Project in a Box challenge: given 30 minutes and a mystery box of materials, they had to work as a team to solve a problem. The challenge? Build a paper airplane to fly a raw egg into the center of a target, using a short list of materials (tape, tissue paper, glue, etc.). Here’s how it went:

MBACS_eggplane

Submit your egg jokes/puns in the comments section.

Thanks to the School District and the judges, as well as Mariana Bracetti teacher Lauren DeHart and Drexel/greenSTEM coding mentor Sean Force.

20 Jan

TechGirlz Tackle Arduino

LED_smiley

On Saturday, more than 20 middle-school girls gave up an unseasonably sunny afternoon to hack with Arduinos. Philadelphia Water’s greenSTEM project hosted a free TechGirlz workshop at Moore College of Art to explain how low-cost electronics and sensors can be used to help the environment, improve our cities and neighborhoods, and connect the real world to the virtual world.

We hit the ground running by setting up with Codebender, a browser-based Arduino programmer that takes much of the pain out of installing software, drivers and libraries on two dozen different computers. We quickly moved to a modified version of the Arduino blink activity and then tackled an art project: programming designs onto a 16×32 LED matrix sign using an x,y grid, geometric shape codes and color codes. This was hard work—many lines of code were written with intense focus.

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Thanks to the girls for attending, to our TechGirlz volunteers, and to Moore College for providing the space.

02 Dec

Introducing: The Soil Cell

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When we first deployed web-connected soil moisture sensors in 2013 (see: the Root Kit), the device relied on radio signals and a school’s wifi network to send data that students could access online. But what if there’s no wifi network to connect to? That limitation led us to investigate using a cellular network signal. This winter, we’re putting the finishing touches on the Soil Cell.

Check out our tutorial: It walks you through the hardware assembly, power-saving code, and the setup of a data endpoint at cloud service Ubidots. We use the Adafruit FONA module to connect to a 2G network; in the coming months, we expect there to be multiple boards that are compatible with the 3G network. (That means there will be even more places where the Soil Cell can connect and send data.) We’ll be updating the tutorial as new pieces come into place.

As we wind down 2015, it’s worth noting that Internet of Things technology (web-connected sensors, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, etc.) is exploding. We’re shifting our Arduino code archive to Codebender and anxiously awaiting the $5 (!) Raspberry Pi Zero, the Particle Electron and the AirBoard—all due to appear in early 2016. These tools will make it easier than ever for students and citizen scientists to collect data and engage in new projects.

21 Jul

Delivery & ExCITe-ment

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The weekly classes we taught at Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus this past spring took place with the support of Seed Project funding from Drexel University’s ExCITe Center. Last Friday, we set up one of our students’ birdhouses there for visitors to see.

Ninth grade students Abdul and Cinque designed this birdhouse for a cardinal. They incorporated the plastic walls because their research indicated that cardinals prefer open nests, and they thought the plastic would give the house a more open feel. For style, and in representation of Abdul’s religion, they etched an Islamic pattern into the plastic.

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This birdhouse reads the soil moisture levels in the plant beside it. Inside we placed a small egg where the birds would normally nest. If you’re at the ExCITe Center, you can check out the video feed here.

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The ExCITe Center’s funding allowed greenSTEM to develop this year’s birdhouse project and teach students to program Arduinos and apply technology to environmental problems.

This birdhouse is one of four designs created over the course’s 16 weeks. Each design incorporated solar power and datalogging via a wifi connection. In addition, all birdhouses have two rooms—one for birds, and one for electronics. The infrared cameras capture HD video of the birds inside the houses and stream it live to computers inside the schools for several hours each day. They also take temperature and soil moisture readings. The temperature data indicates how comfortable the birds are inside their home, and the soil moisture levels indicate when school gardens require watering. The birdhouses use low-cost technologies such as the Arduino microcontroller and the Raspberry Pi single-board computer.

Because the ExCITe Center’s new birdhouse is hooked up to a steady internet connection and power source, we currently have it streaming during the entirety of the center’s hours of operation.

Philadelphia Water staff collaborated with the Fairmount Water Works, Public Workshop and Jarvus Innovations. Drexel University undergraduates Darya Dragun, Marika Zeldenrust and Alexandra Jones, along with Temple intern Olivia Williams, were key contributors to the project. Plans are already being hatched (no birdhouse pun intended) for next year’s greenSTEM project.

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