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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08 Jul

A Sticky Situation

unnamedOur John Heinz birdhouse has been claimed by the biggest bullies of the bird realm: house sparrows. If you’re not familiar with the species, they are notorious for attacking neighboring birds and spitefully stealing their eggs with no intention of eating them.

Shortly after we installed the box in May, a tree swallow had taken up nesting there and was busy laying eggs and preparing for nesting. However, as noted in our saga, house sparrows have continually taken to harassing our tree swallow residents. They’ve made a habit of taking their eggs, destroying their nests, and, to our dismay, kicking them out of their little bird home.

The last time we visited at the end of June, the house sparrows had filled the birdhouse up to the camera’s level with sticks. This maneuver, according to other birdhouse builders, occurs when house sparrows want to prevent other birds from nesting in boxes in their territory. We returned during the second week of July to clear out the sticks in hopes that another tree swallow would be able to nest in the birdhouse.

 

 

18 Jun

Put A Bird In It: SLA Beeber’s Birdhouse

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Now available: summer rental, 1BR with porch, ready for move-in at Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus. As detailed in a previous post, a group of 9th graders at the school spent the last 8 weeks designing, prototyping, and building solar-powered, webcam- and sensor-enabled birdhouses (and one bat box). Philadelphia Water and Public Workshop worked with the students to hone their ideas and craft the houses in the school’s excellent makerspace. Students Amani and Aaliyah worked on this honeycomb design that’s perfect for cavity nesters such as sparrows, wrens, and chickadees. The middle compartment is sized to contain the electronics and infrared nest camera.

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Installation in the schoolyard came down to the very last day of school, so the majority of the observing, sensing and solar-powering will take place when classes resume in the fall. Two other birdhouses and a bat box are nearly ready for installation, too—we’ll be scouting locations around the city for them to be installed.

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Thank you to Public Workshop’s Alex Gilliam and Jason Depenbrock, as well as sophomore Brodie Bauman, for their design and construction expertise. Additional thanks to Drexel’s ExCITe Center for purchasing materials. Summer is here but we’re still working—wait until you see the other designs.

17 Jun

Gimme Shelter (At The Refuge)

heinz_birdhouseWe are much belated in posting this news, but the first greenSTEM birdhouse was not installed at a school but rather at a wildlife refuge. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum has long been one of our favorite green spots in Philadelphia. Easily accessible from I-95 near the airport, it’s a true urban refuge: Even as planes fly overhead and highway traffic blurs in the distance, you’re enveloped in 1,000 acres of freshwater tidal wetland and forested hiking/biking trails. It’s also a birder’s paradise, as hundreds of species of birds can be spotted at the refuge over the course of the year—from migratory shorebirds and raptors to turkeys and cavity nesters such as swallows and sparrows.

When we began building birdhouse prototypes, we met with deputy refuge manager Mariana Bergerson and wildlife biologist Brendalee Phillips to get some design tips, configure a wifi connection to stream nestcam video, and figure out placement. The last part was easy—the refuge’s visitor center has solar panels on its roof, so we put it in the meadow and aimed our solar panel the same way. See photo above—you’ll also notice some perches on the side of the birdhouse and spikes on the roof to prevent birds perching (and subsequently pooping) on the solar panel.

Birds moved in almost immediately. It’s an ongoing saga, but after the jump we begin the story of swallow vs. sparrow.

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02 Jun

For The Birds: greenSTEM Birdhouses Arrive at Philly Schools

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Last year, greenSTEM focused on building Root Kits so that Philadelphia students could monitor the soil moisture levels in their school gardens and gain an understanding of water-related issues in an urban environment. However, the soil moisture data was pretty predictable. When it rained, the moisture readings went up. The soil would gradually dry and the readings would hover at low levels until the next big shower.  The project needed something to capture the students’ attentions and keep them checking in with the data. We also needed to get the sensors off the ground and off the grid.

Somewhere along the line the idea arrived: “What if we paired this environmental data collection with something else? What if we adapted it into the form of a solar-powered birdhouse?” Using the birdhouse as our sensor housing, we could now offer students a live video stream of birds nesting inside the house as well.

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And so, with the summer sun shining, we successfully installed our first birdhouses at two Philadelphia schools. On May 28, 7th grade students at Penn Alexander in West Philadelphia helped us assemble the birdhouse that now sits in their vegetable garden. We brought the pre-cut pieces of the birdhouse to the schoolyard and helped science teacher Stephanie Kearney’s students use cordless drills to make pilot holes and screw the pieces in place. They also took a look around the schoolyard with urban bird expert Tony Croasdale of Wild West Philly. With binoculars in hand, they found a few nests! PAlexander_birdwatching (2)

The next day, at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Manayunk, we assembled a similar birdhouse with 7th graders from teacher Jose Ramos’ class and placed it in the school’s meadow. With both installations, we explained the purpose and components of the birdhouses to the students.

Cook_Wiss_crew (2)The first thing one notices about the birdhouse is the shiny black solar panel on the rooftop. The panel is placed facing south at a 40-degree angle, mimicking Philadelphia’s approximate 40-degree latitude on Earth, in order to optimize absorption of solar rays. This solar panel is attached to the birdhouse to charge the battery inside that provides power for the birdhouses’ camera and sensors.

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The battery is located in one of the birdhouse’s two compartments. The bottom floor is a living space for the birds, but the top floor acts as a storage compartment for the technology that records video of the birds and takes soil moisture readings below. Battery-powered in the tech compartment are a Sleepy Pi and a Raspberry Pi. The Sleepy Pi, coded in Arduino, allows us to control when the video camera in the birdhouse turns on and off, cycling to conserve energy. The Sleepy Pi connects to the soil moisture sensor and a temperature sensor that take readings every hour and transmit the data via wifi to data.greenSTEMnetwork.org. Meanwhile, a PiNoir camera creates a video stream of the birds inside, and an infrared LED lights up the interior of the birdhouse just enough for us to see our subjects. The video stream can be viewed by students on their school’s network.

We’ll document all the technical details and challenges in the coming weeks, both on the blog and through sharing code and schematics. But for now, we’re hoping to get birds nesting in the new houses before school lets out.

All of this would not have been possible without assistance from the School District of Philadelphia (who are partly responsible for this whole project) and IT guru George Li, who set up wifi networks for both birdhouses. Special thanks to Rachel Odoroff from the Fairmount Water Works for her teaching expertise and involvement in the project.

07 May

SLA Beeber Wins Drinking Water Award

Photo Courtesy: Virginia Vassalotti
Photo Courtesy: Melissa Bittner

On Monday, the Schuylkill Action Network gave SLA Beeber students the 2015 Scholastic Drinking Water Award. The 9th and 10th graders have worked with the Philadelphia Water Department’s greenSTEM project  in weekly courses. SLA Beeber was one of three award winning schools across the Schuylkill River Valley. Schools that have won the award in the past have demonstrated exemplary stormwater management practices, or conducted class projects or educational programs pertaining to clean water. SLA Beeber won this year’s award for participating in our Root Kit project,  where they programmed Arduinos and sensors to monitor and record soil moisture data.

The high school hosted an assembly to honor these students for their hard work, which was attended by representatives from the Schuylkill Action Network, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. Several of the students spoke about their work with the Root Kits and explained what they had learned about the importance of protecting drinking water through green stormwater infrastructure and visits to the Fairmount Water Works during their mini-courses with PWD.

Photo Courtesy: Virginia Vassalotti
Photo Courtesy: Melissa Bittner

The students also demonstrated how their project worked to monitor soil moisture and keep plants healthy. The photo above shows one student showing off a Root Kit they kept at the school, which not only takes soil moisture readings but displays  whether the soil is in a wet or dry state through an Arduino-powered LED matrix the students programmed themselves. The student explained that when the plant needs water, the screen will flash ‘DRY’ and when the soil is adequately moist the screen will read ‘WET.’

Jon Capacasa, director of the the  Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Protection Division, spoke about the importance of collaboration with students and educational facilities to help protect drinking water and presented the group with a plaque commemorating their achievement.

27 Apr

Thinking Outside of the (Cardboard) Box

Ninth grade students at Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus began the challenge this week of creating their own solar-powered, video-capturing, soil-moisture monitoring bird houses—and maybe even a few bat boxes. Each unit will be equipped with its own Arduino/Raspberry Pi  device that will harness the solar power and use WiFi to transmit soil-moisture data and a live “peep show” (get it, because they’re birds?) courtesy of the infrared camera, allowing students to observe the birds inside. As if all of the technical aspects weren’t enough to consider, the students also have to be aware of what kind of birds they’re building for, and choose their houses’ specifications accordingly.

So this week, in becoming aware of their tenants, the students crafted cardboard to scale models of their birds of choice with the help of Alex Gilliam, director of the organization Public Workshop (which collaborates with youths and their communities to help them shape the design of their cities through workshops and leadership programs). And check out the results!

Photo credit: Matthew Fritch

Here we have a few American Robins, a few House Sparrows, and one American Chickadee. Some students also scaled cardboard models of starlings, bluebirds, and bats.

Gilliam encouraged the students to account for both the size of their birds with their wings at their sides and fully spread. They’re each taped to a cardboard sheet inscribed with pertinent information—things like diet, preferred habitat, and how they prefer to nest.

Next week the students will start modeling cardboard prototypes of their birdhouses/bat boxes for their cardboard creatures in order to get the designs perfect for the final products.

16 Apr

Welcome to the Matrix

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In our last post, we detailed how soil moisture sensors and datalogging are not exactly the cure for dead plants (or neglectful students). The next step at SLA Beeber was to give students blindingly bright visual cues as to when their plants required watering. Along with taking soil moisture readings and determining a wet or dry state, students programmed their own designs onto an Arduino-powered LED matrix. Remember Lite-Brite? It’s kind of like that, except it’s coded in Arduino using an x-y coordinate system, geometric shape commands and color codes. Students began by sketching their designs onto a 16×32 grid, then breaking the grid into rectangles, lines, and pixels as lines of code:

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Adafruit has an excellent tutorial on how to wire this to the Arduino and program it. We put the display inside a Pelican case to keep it dry and set it up in the school’s hallway, where one can only hope the plants’ occasional pleas for water will catch someone’s eye.

17 Mar

Green Sensor Design (and Terrible Gardening) at SLA Beeber

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At Science Leadership Academy’s Beeber campus in Overbrook, 9th grade students are learning to program Arduinos to collect soil moisture and sunlight data. The course began with a trip to the Fairmount Water Works to get some background on Philadelphia’s water history, its present challenges due to stormwater and combined sewer overflows, and the plan for an environmentally sustainable future. On the tech side, we’ve covered Arduino basics, Ohm’s Law, simple circuit design (in the photos above, Fritzing came in handy to help students visualize circuits), and the principles behind soil moisture sensors and photocells.

Each student used a datalogger shield to monitor a plant. Alas, monitoring does not equal maintenance. There’s only one bit of green in this otherwise barren dirt farm:

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In the coming weeks, we’ll figure out more attention-grabbing ways to make sure students are looking after the plants. (And perhaps a solution to that mess of wires.) Thanks to Drexel University’s ExCITe Center, whose Seed Project funding brought all the electronics and sensors into the classroom.