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iLabs: So What’s the Story With Fred or Nature Meets Digital

June 23, 2012

Of all the questions I expected to be asked about the plant/electronic sensor experiment, the one I didn’t anticipate was:

Is Fred the plant, or the elephant?

I never even noticed the little glass elephant, he was just part of the plant/vase setup. But given the keen observation skills and curiosity of our visitors, I realized I need to address the oversight on my part.

For clarity’s sake, let me say first-off, that Fred is the plant, a small bonsai tree, to be specific. The little glass elephant that I paid so little attention to, but who apparently caught the eye of many visitors, I have named Orville. You could say he was a decoration, purely aesthetic, but that would be wrong. He is a teacher on the powers of observation. Our visitors have reminded me, through Orville, that in science, it’s all about OBSERVATION….nothing goes unnoticed, including Orville….or at least, it shouldn’t.

plant name tag

The label on Fred’s pot.

decorative elephant in potted plant

Here is the little elephant, now named Orville, that I did not really notice until our visitors did.

decorative bonsai in flat pot connected to a soil moisture sensor

Here is the whole setup – Fred, Orville, the soil moisture sensor, and the Labquest

With that out of the way, let me now go on to explain exactly why a bonsai tree and a glass elephant are in the Micro World lab.

Fred is my Mother’s Day present, a little bonsai tree in a long flat pot with rocks and some decorative items.  Realizing that one of the biggest issues in keeping bonsais is keeping them properly watered, and also realizing I do not have the best green thumb, I decided to bring Fred to the lab and hook him up to a soil moisture sensor. The sensor is attached to a Vernier Labquest data-collection module which shows the current moisture level in the pot. I did some research and found a site that said an optimal moisture range is about 20-30%.

Vernier Labquest module

bonsai pot connected to a Labquest by a soil moisture sensor

Here is the whole setup: potted bonsai connected to the Vernier Labquest via a soil moisture sensor buried in the plant soil.

At about the same time I read an article about a “Technology Garden” at the University of California, Irvine.

We introduce the Technology Garden, a novel interactive environment to promote human-plant interaction. The Garden is a sensor-equipped garden in an office, supplemented by a software system to encourage social interaction. In a one week observational and interview study we found that participants were very positive about their experiences. Many said they wished to further explore how technology can mediate human-plant interactions….

The Technology Garden is a technology enriched community garden in a university office building created to invite interaction with both plants and people. Our goals in creating the Technology Garden were threefold: (1) to promote thinking about ecological sustainability; (2) to create a pleasing office environment promoting relaxation; and (3) to encourage social interaction in an organization.”

Long story short, they set up an indoor garden in a technology building there, hooked up a bunch of webcams, digital sensors, etc., and connected all on a web page so that all in the building could be part of watching, caring, and interacting with the plants and each other. It was a social experiment in people bonding to nature and each other, through the use of technology.

(For the entire story on this project at the University of California, Irvine, check out the Blogspot blog, The Technology Garden and also the website for projects by Charlotte P. Lee: Technology Garden)

Through the gracious support of a Forestry grant we have been able to purchase a number of electronic sensors and Labquests for use in classes in Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science. Using this equipment, we are exploring the possibility of trying something similar by connecting Fred, and other live displays in the Micro World, and possibly other labs, to computers in the Visual World – a sort of mini-technology garden experiment here. People can be viewing readouts and images in the Visual World of things going on in various labs, and can then go visit that lab to check things out in person. They could even come let us know that Fred needs watering.

As a test of whether people would care about something like this, we put up a sign asking people to please let us know if Fred’s moisture level drops below 20%. This has been very successful. Visitors of all ages stop to look at him, check his sensor and many let us know if he needs attention.

Lab sign

Sign on display in our lab requesting the visitors’ help with Fred

So this is the idea we are pursuing, humans and plants, brought together through the matchmaking efforts of digital sensors…or “The Fred Project.”

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