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


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:


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.

20 Dec

Git Repos Are Now Live

The longest-running inside joke among our team is “Git repos are now live.” It’s the title of an immense email chain started months ago that, even though we use GitHub and Dropbox and Google docs, refuses to die and inadvertently contains lots of documentation. (“Git repos” are GitHub repositories—spaces online where we store code and files.)

So, as we wrap up 2013, we got this little gift from team member Louis Cook, a graphic designer:

git repos

05 Dec

Re-branding: greenSTEM Network

greenSTEM logo sketch

Ever since we retired the Solar Sunflower name, we’ve been attempting to come up with a new handle for this project. Many pages and napkins have been scribbled with notes, drawings and words: green, schools, sensor, network, garden, STEM, system, soil, water, stormwater … nothing stuck.

Earlier this week, PWD aquatic biologist Jay Cruz dropped a piece of looseleaf paper on my desk (above); he came up with it while drawing with his daughter. It’s perfect: greenSTEM. We’re going with it, and we’re even going to use a modified version of the logo Jay drew, including the  CFL lightbulb—nice touch.

09 Aug

A Good Schematic Is Worth a Thousand Blog Posts


Thanks to our new team member James Tyack for illustrating our green school sensor configuration. This was a quick sketch he made, so I’m not going to complain about the penmanship. (But c’mon James, really.) In case you’re looking for further illumination, we’re looking at the Arduino with WiFi shield sitting in the rain garden transmitting sensor data via the school’s WiFi network. (The Arduino also records sensor data to an SD memory card as a backup.) The sensor readings are sent to a Ruby on Rails server with a database, and displayed on a website.