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Engineering in Action: How Middle School Students Created a Tech-Enabled Garden

Photo-illustration of students from Manhattan Catholic Schools

Tyson Vrbas is always seeking out new and interesting ways to engage his middle school students in robotics, a subject he has now taught for 20 years at Manhattan Catholic Schools in Manhattan, Kansas. When he learned about the Vernier Engineering Award, he wanted his submission to demonstrate student collaboration on a robotics project that also connected to the real world.

After collaborating with Patsy Johnson, the school’s STREAM coordinator, Vrbas decided to center the project on the school’s garden. “The garden was started during quarantine as a way to give our students and families a safe way to get outside and plant tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, and other vegetables,” said Vrbas. “It took off so much so that we now have a surplus of vegetables that we are donating to our local food pantry.”

“We wanted to find a way to further enhance the garden and decided to focus on soil,” Vrbas continued. “We already had a rain barrel at the site, but wanted to figure out a way to automate the watering process.”

Collaborating on a Solution

Vrbas presented this idea to his students in his robotics elective class and they immediately got together to find potential solutions. “I presented the problem to my students and they just took off with it,” said Vrbas. “They brainstormed and started coming up with some really good ideas.”

The students ultimately utilized a Vernier Soil Moisture Sensor and a LEGO® MINDSTORMS® EV3 kit to design a robot that attached to the rain barrel. Students programmed the robot so that a valve would automatically open and water a planter bed in the garden once the soil moisture minimum threshold was reached. The students also waterproofed the system so it could withstand any elements and installed a power cord and rechargeable battery so the system would run constantly.

Students collaborating on an engineering solution.

“When the ground gets to a certain level of dryness or dampness, the sensor sends a signal to the robot,” said Vrbas. “For example, it can be programmed to turn on at 50 percent moisture and then automatically stop watering once the moisture level hits 65 percent. The system is constantly monitoring the soil moisture to see if the valve needs to be opened or closed.”

They really collaborated and problem solved as a group and, in the end, developed a really awesome solution. It was a great experience.

“Every student played a part in creating this, whether it was focusing on programming or engineering the valve motor or working on the barrel,” said Vrbas. “They really collaborated and problem solved as a group and, in the end, developed a really awesome solution. It was a great experience.”

Long-Lasting Benefits

The project, which was selected as the winner of the 2021 Vernier Engineering Award for its innovation and creativity, will have a long-lasting impact on the school.

“Now that we have the idea down, we can create more of these systems for additional planter beds in the garden. And, we can also do more experimentation to see which moisture levels lead to optimal growth,” said Vrbas. “This is really a project that will continue to build upon itself.”

These sensors will allow us to do even more hands-on learning and give our students access to real-time data which will be great.

By winning the award prizes, Vrbas was also able to acquire new Vernier Go Direct® O2 Gas Sensors and Go Direct CO2 Gas Sensors, which he is planning to have students use for new investigations. “These sensors will allow us to do even more hands-on learning and give our students access to real-time data which will be great.”

About the Educator 

Tyson Vrbas
Manhattan Catholic Schools
Manhattan, KS

Tyson Vrbas teaches general science, as well as robotics and science enrichment electives, to students in Grades 6–8 at Manhattan Catholic Schools. 

Learn More About Vernier Engineering

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