Rain gauges offer “outside the textbook” learning

By Shellie Smitley | Staff Writer

“One of the things that we have been doing over the last four or five years is getting more into micro-controllers,” Andy Hauger, professor of physics, said.

He said students under his advisement and in cooperation with the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy are taking advantage of some of the latest technology to build devices that require interdisciplinary approaches.

“… We are taking electrical sensors and we’re controlling and measuring things with these things called micro-controllers…and then we can use that to collect data or put that data on a website or use that data to control something…,” Hauger said.

Hauger said that during a summer internship, Michael Roeber, a computer science major, was the student that “led the program” by developing all of the electronics.

“He (Roeber) took (a rain gauge)…and set that into an Arduino and was able to put a …T-Mobile card, SMS, and it can take that information and text that to another one of these with another cell phone card …so we have these sensors that are out in the woods….and they can actually send that rainfall to a collection point and then that collection point eventually will be able to display water fall,” Hauger said.

“Arduino is an open-source prototyping platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software,” according to arduino.cc.

The plan is to put dozens of them around the county. Currently, there are five around the county that are working, according to Hauger.
“What is kind of cool about it is that it involves measuring and sensing an environmentally important variable …taking that and using …analog and digital electronics that we teach here at GRU and using cell technology to basically take that and put that on the internet and then…you are able to display, use and map it …” Hauger said.

Thomas Crute, chair of the Chemistry & Physics Department, said the project is a terrific opportunity to marry science with creativity.

Rain Gauges - Cropped
Physics students created rain gauges that measure local rainfall. The gauges involve the use of micro-controllers and the project is in cooperation with the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy. (Photo: Shellie Smitley)

“It’s a matter of equal opportunity, people working on stuff, all they have to do is express an interest and some seriousness about it and we will try to get them involved,” Crute said. “As a matter of fact we have a lot of students that are not physics majors. Some of them turn into physics majors because they see how cool it is…”

Out-of-the-textbook learning is something that is encouraged by Georgia Regents University.

“The College of Science and Mathematics is committed to providing an undergraduate experience promoting scientific inquiry and discovery and is also dedicated to creating opportunities for intellectual growth and community involvement,” according to gru.edu.

Crute said students in the physics classes are also designing their own amplifiers using sensors. Last year during the inquiry classes, some students designed jack-o-lanterns that had sonic sensors that changed lights and played sounds as spectators approached.

One student designed a football helmet that could detect and alert the coach by text message if impact was hard enough to cause a concussion.

“These are clever students” Crute said. “These were their ideas and they actually made it work.”

Crute said the department is trying to strengthen the relationship with E-Z-Go Textron and taking over projects that the company does not have the time or the energy for and projects that the company is willing to allow students to work on. The projects take place outside of class.

“We have more going on, E-Z-Go Textron, specialized vehicles, gave us a vehicle, golf cart, it’s an electric vehicle and one of the things they are wanting us to do with that …is to make this into an autonomous vehicle,” Hauger said.

Chris Cohen, physics major, said the three main goals of the project are to automate it, make sure it can drive itself where it needs to go and some upgrades that involve the automation of several tests.

The stated goal is to be able to test drive the golf carts in situations where it would be unsafe to have a human driving them.

He said the project should be concluded by next year and they hope to be able to showcase it at the science fair.

“We are basically finding out that there is very inexpensive electronics and technology out there that you can connect sensors to these programmable chips or devices ….and use those then to control things,” Hauger said.

He said most of the devices that the students are developing already exist.

“The advantage to our way of doing this is that we can accurately add some bells and whistles that we think are better…,” Hauger said. “We are writing code, but they are using software that is available for free… Most of the components are cheap…so therefore we can make a bunch of them…There is more that we can do with later phases…”

He said that this opens up a whole world of experience in terms of learning for students, but also in terms of making connections with people who eventually will be hiring.

“…This stuff is not in the back of the book…,” Hauger said. “When you are going to go and do something at a deep level like that, there is a different kind of learning that happens…”

Contact Shellie Smitley at: sbarb@gru.edu.

Published on January 28, 2016 in Volume 58, Issue 5 of The Bell Ringer newspaper. 

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