02 Jun

SIM Goes To State


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.


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:


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:


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

05 Feb

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


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.)


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:


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.