“Lane of Things” Brings Sensor Science to Schools

06
May
2016

Inside the small wooden box are several tiny sensors, a cellular modem, a battery, and a micro-processor running custom programming code. But the key innovation for Erica Pereira’s “Lane of Things” device might be the laser-printed cut-out design of the outer enclosure: two circles and a square forming a friendly emoji-like face.

“We wanted to do a social experiment to see how close people got to the box, so we wanted to make it approachable,” said Pereira, a Lane Tech College Prep High School student who worked on the “Happy Movements” project with Cr’Shon Henry and Evan Patrick.

Their box was just one of over forty sensor nodes built by Lane Tech students as part of the first Lane of Things workshop, funded by Motorola Solutions and organized by the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as part of the broader Array of Things (AoT) project. The workshop was the first stage of the AoT’s educational component, using the technology and principles of the urban sensing platform to help students learn about programming, data science, digital fabrication, and additional CS concepts.

“Chicago and cities around the world want to make sure that their students receive education and experience in the technical skills that will be in demand in tomorrow’s economy,” said Charlie Catlett, CI Senior Fellow and UrbanCCD Director. “We think that Array of Things provides a perfect platform for students to learn about the basics of computer science in the context of engagement with their surroundings.”

LoT4.jpegFor eight weeks, students in Jeff Solin’s Innovation and Creation Lab and Dan Law’s Physical Computing Lab at Lane Tech worked with UrbanCCD and SAIC researchers on formulating and executing their own sensor experiments. After an introduction to the project from SAIC’s Douglas Pancoast, Satya Mark Basu, and Robb Drinkwater, the students came up with their own research questions and node designs, choosing everything from the material used for the enclosure to the types of sensors it housed.

The student teams then installed their sensors around the school, measuring dust and methane produced by nearby road construction, humidity in the school’s gyms, the noise and dynamics of hallway traffic, and more. After two weeks, they analyzed the collected data to better understand their school’s environment and infrastructure, prompting new ideas about using technology to improve their surroundings, which they presented at a final event on April 26th.

Students Charlie Medina, Nicholas Schoessling, and Michael Kane organized their “Project Beehive” around the school’s roof greenhouse, designing a node that monitored temperature, light, humidity, and soil moisture. In order to “not just collect, but give back information,” Medina said, they also installed and programmed a small LED light to flash green, yellow, or red based on whether the plant needed watering.

LoT3.jpegThe data was detailed enough to see spikes when plants were watered, and to watch the soil dry out over spring break. Medina proposed that future sensors could be programmed to coordinate with the greenhouse sprinkler system, such that watering could be triggered automatically when the moisture falls below a particular threshold.

Another group, made up of students Ari Greenberg Justin Trieu, and Eryk Cygielski, used their node to answer a social science question: “How curious are the students of Lane Tech?” Their box held an infrared sensor that could detect when a person or object was within three feet of the node, which they installed behind a bust of school namesake Albert G. Lane, beneath a sign reading “Don’t Come Near.”

Over the week it was installed, 58 people ignored the warning and walked within the sensor’s range, most after normal class hours. The students hypothesized that people were in less of a hurry and more attentive when not rushing between classes -- or were more likely to disobey the sign when fewer people were around.

Unfortunately, some teams were forced to learn a lesson that had little to do with data. A handful of sensor nodes were taken down or vandalized during the project, forcing team members to work with only partial data, or make more sociological conclusions about people’s reaction to embedded technology and sensor projects.

LoT5.jpegInnovation and Creation Lab instructor Jeff Solin said that the students were very engaged in these types of discussions about how to appropriately use sensing technology.

“There were several questions generated from the project about ethics and appropriate ‘sensorship,’” Solin said. “We had good conversations about not just what we could and couldn’t sense, but what we should and shouldn’t.”

Solin hopes that the Lane of Things curriculum can be expanded upon and adapted to other locations within Chicago Public Schools, which earlier this year added computer science as a graduation requirement district-wide. Besides teaching students about coding, new manufacturing tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers, and data analysis and visualization, the experimental results could also be used to connect the project with traditional science classes. Two of the first wave of Array of Things sensor nodes will also be installed at Lane Tech later this year, giving students more data to work, play, and learn with.

“It taught us how to translate raw data and make it easier to understand,” said student Ethan Forte, whose team with Maria de la Torre and Jennifer Rodriguez measured weather conditions around the school. “We did a lot of iterating and dealing with unforeseen problems. It helped us understand what it means to be a maker.”

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