Students In Hands-On Sensors Class Install Systems To Monitor Botanical Garden

By on November 30, 2015

Students install a sensor tower in the University of California Botanical Garden to monitor air temperature, humidity, soil moisture and solar radiation. (Credit: University of California, Berkeley / Civil Engineering 271, Internet of Things team)

In an age of ever-advancing computing abilities, it’s increasingly easy for youngsters to grow up without ever having to get hands-on with their education. And they are very comfortable with pinching, zooming and swiping across their handheld devices of choice.

But of course, there’s more to the world than what’s happening on flat, glass screens. That’s something that Steven Glaser, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, is trying to teach his students.

Glaser has delivered this lesson, and continues to do so, via a class on sensors and signal interpretation that he has offered for more than three years. Throughout the semester-long class, students get a more tactile experience than computers can offer, and for good reason.

“The world’s physical. We’re not quite living in virtual reality — yet. When you put things together, you see how they work. It’s important because the world is physical,” said Glaser. “And one day, maybe a student of mine will be designing a water treatment plant. I want them to have an idea of what a pipe is and how it all fits together.”

Students entering the class are allowed to come up with their own projects. Many start out wanting to play with data too much, Glaser says, or come up with projects that are simply too large to be completed in one semester term. So he helps them to come up with some more realistic options.

Students in Steven Glaser’s sensors and signal interpretation class test monitoring equipment before deployment in the University of California Botanical Garden. (Credit: University of California, Berkeley / Civil Engineering 271, Internet of Things team)

A few projects that his students have worked on recently include automating the brewing of coffee and using a brain-wave helmet to study the attention spans of motorcyclists, among others.

In a completed example of what the class can accomplish, Glaser worked with students to install a small network of sensors at the university’s botanical garden. The garden, which is supported mostly by donations and volunteers, had a need for more precise metrics on a variety of parameters affecting the growth of its plants.

“They (the botanical garden staff) knew they needed to measure humidity and temperature in more areas,” said Glaser. “In the Asian (plant) areas, they wanted to know about weather in the day time.”

So Glaser and students from his class worked to install five new monitoring stations throughout the botanical garden. These work via a wireless sensor network system that Glaser helped to develop and is now sold under the Metronome Systems banner. Glaser has used the system in the past in other successful deployments, including the American River Hydrological Observatory, a part of the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory.

The botanical garden’s new sensors monitor for temperature, humidity, soil water content and solar radiation. All the data collected are then sent to the staff at the garden and to Glaser via cellular telemetry.

“I wanted one of the classes to be a monitoring project and my wife and I go to the botanical garden often,” said Glaser. “The garden managers are very happy, and they’re just starting to get the data. It’s amazing what little they had before.”

Top image: Students install a sensor tower in the University of California Botanical Garden to monitor air temperature, humidity, soil moisture and solar radiation. (Credit: University of California, Berkeley / Civil Engineering 271, Internet of Things team)

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