Soil System

Composition and properties of the soil directly influence the successful growth of any plant. Different plants need different soil conditions. In high scale commercial farming, experts measure and maintain the the quality of the soil to get better results.

Even at the domestic level, gardeners and farming hobbyists have the ability to measure the properties of their garden or backyard easily, thanks to the simple soil test kits. These kits are easy and simple enough to use without any expert knowledge and pretty accurate given the small scale used. In spite of the easy operation, I felt some people may find it difficult to relate the results of these tests to what they want to plant. Simply- “ I got dark green for my pH test and I want to plant an apple tree. What should I do?” Therefore in my project I propose a way of simply representing these information in a tabular form.

As a part of this information base I created the following table to be used with the Rapitest ph test kit as an example.

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Soil Concepts for the Young Scientist

Young scientists, also known as  children, make useful and pertinent observations regarding natural phenomenon. Their interaction with soil and sand is also more personal and regular than the kind of interactions that adults in urban areas have. Even with limitations like lack of open patches of dirt or uncultivated land, expectations of more structured play, children explore and draw relevant conclusions about soil systems. This infographic is meant to tie their conclusions together in a scientific manner to help them decide the quality of the soil they are interacting with. Questions about bad smelling soil and its implications can be answered with the help  of this infographic.

For older enthusiasts capable of growing microorganisms in a petri dish, I plan to create a similar infographic based on a shape sorter theme. Microorganisms growing in colonies in a petri dish show unique physical and chemical properties that can be used to identify them.

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Proper Application and Distribution of Soil Fertilizer for Effective Foliage Health Maintenance

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be financially able to hire a gardener or arborist to maintain the natural environment on their property. Property owners are often challenged to identify and address the needs of the natural environment they choose to keep. This often leads to erroneous or incompatible soil fertilization and watering schedules for each plant respectively. Applying the incorrect amount of fertilizer can “burn” or “starve” a tree. While applying fertilizer indirectly can lead to incomplete fertilization and starvation of a tree’s nutritional requirements.


Although I have personal experience fertilizing crops, I am still often sloppy and incomplete in my application. I recently fertilized my palm trees in my yard and realized how indirect some of my application was. One side of the tree had the gravel pushed back and the roots were exposed to the application, whereas the opposite side did not have the rocks or debris cleared and the application was void of fertilizer.


After a complete watering for several days, the fertilizer should now show increases in the proposed mineral composition of the”Lilly Miller” fertilizer product when sampling soil taken from beneath the surface. Although the fertilizer will have an effect on the unapplied side of the tree, the dispersion of the chemicals takes additional time and considerable soil soaking. A 15 minute daily drip watering has occurred 3 times, without a full soaking or rainfall. Watering has also been concentrated towards the cleared and fertilized side, likely enhancing the effectiveness of the concentrated application.


The 10-5-8 reference on the packaging is intended to suggest a 10%N(Nitrogen), 5% P2O5(Phosphate), 8% K2O(Potash) composition makeup.

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Soil was sampled using a 1.5″ pvc tube hammered into the ground, sampling 3-6 inches in depth from each side of the tree.

Hypothetically, the available Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash will show significantly higher values on the directly applied side of the tree than that of the un-applied side.

In effect, the outcome of my hypothesis requires a full soil test to determine the values and differences/similarities in the available N, P2O5 and K2O. Additional tests of various chemicals and values may reveal additional findings of interest.

These findings would be of value to gardeners or professionals interested in maintaining healthy foliage through proper fertilizer application and distribution.

Biomarkers and bio-indicators

Everyday biomarkers are common biological organisms that express information about an ecosystem or its many parts. In this assignment, you will find and observe an organic system (plant, insect, animal, or a combination of these) to infer something about the environment. Working off ideas from Nurturing Natural Sensors, your goal is to find something living and use it as a sensor.

You can apply any mode of inquiry to identify local biomarkers: online research, interview an expert (e.g., local gardener, beekeeper, etc.), personal experience. Once you pick a bio-indicator or biomarker you must find it in the real world, document it (photograph or video), and explain what it tells you about the environment.

Post your assignment under the “biomarker” category.

This assignment is worth 3 points
1 point for researching an organic system that can be used as a biomarker for region
1 point for finding, observing, and documenting this biomarker in the real world
1 point for explaining what the biomarker you observed tells you about the environment

Soil System – Terraced Terrarium

For my project, I wanted to create a way for people to explore and understand different types of soil and what types of plants grow in them. To do this, I designed a terraced terrarium, which would contain different types of soil and plants on the different terraces.


Sketch of Terrace Terrarium – in this version, the terraces are divided by the dryness of climate (1st being full water, 2nd swampland, 3rd rocky soil, 4th sand). Theoretically, people could try only watering the top and then using overflow to water the rest of the terraces based on how much water trickles down, but that could end disastrously.

terraced terrarium print

Printed Model – even for tiny plants, the final version would need to be larger than this model, and would have to be watertight.

This piece could help to demonstrate how different soil and water combinations can be beneficial to different types of plants, even when they are exposed to similar temperatures and amounts of sunlight.

Arduino based temperature sensing

For this project, I used an Arduino Uno board and  MCP9808 heat sensor from adafruit. In the firmware I used Adafruit_MCP9808 library provided with the sensor and Arduino wire library for I2C  communication. With this setup I was able to get the temperature reading from the sensor through serial monitor without a trouble.


Next part is to visualize the temperature reading meaningfully. I decided to try out a very simple mechanism to provide a visual expression about the current temperature. Here my goal wasn’t to visualise the exact temperature value, but to provide a sense of in which range the temperature is. Derived from the previous work “Unlocking the Expressivity of Point Lights” by Harrison et al, I decided to use a single LED to create a temperature visual expression.

I modulate the temperature reading to a square single as follows and send it to the LED. In my experiment I used 110F as the upper limit.

pulse width = (110- temp_reading) * 10


So, the LED will blink faster as the temperature increases and slower as the temperature decreases.  

After few experiments with different temperatures (on top of my coffee cup, inside a ice cup and in normal room temperature) I learned this method is capable of expressing temperature levels, but human eye is not capable of identify the change of the blink rate when it increases gradually.

So in next steps I will need to try few other blinking patterns as Harrison suggested going beyond directly modulating to the pulse width in order to provide a rich visual expression of temperature using this simple method.

Measuring UV Exposure when you’re NOT out in the Sun

We all worry about UV exposure when we are at the beach or spending unusually long hours outside in the sun. What we don’t worry about is the ways we can still expose ourselves to UV when we are NOT out in the sun, or when we think we are protected from UV.

UV exposure is cumulative and it is not possible to measure the extent of exposure with a UV measuring system.

The idea for this assignment was to use the Sparkfun Arduino SI1145 visible-UV-IR sensor for this purpose.

The first roadblock was the complete lack of any coding experience. I have tweaked Scratch and R to suit project needs but never “written” code from scratch and was very enthusiastic and hopeful about this assignment and didn’t want to limit the project to a blinking LED. The Windows interface posed an additional initial challenge but Stacey and Jennifer saved the day!

This is what the initial setup looked like


The final code

The output – indoor

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The output – outdoor

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It will be interesting to take the system on a drive with me even on a cloudy day, or even check artificial light sources for UV radiation

Soil system concept

So far, the assignments have asked you to create concrete artifacts that engaged with particular issues (e.g., a print that responds to heat; a sensor that measures heat). Shifting now from heat to soil, this exercise asks you to think more broadly:

How can citizens engage with soil quality? What kind of system would support this engagement and how would it be evaluated?

In this assignment you will create a concept for soil sensing system. This means moving beyond one particular sensor, and more broadly thinking about:

  • who would use your system (gardeners, children, general population, etc.)
  • where or how the system would be used (e.g., in someone’s yard or home, across the entire city)
  • what issue it would address (pollution, water retention, biodiversity, general engagement with soil, etc.)
  • how would success be measured (what are the intended outcomes?)

This is a maker assignment, so you must physically make at least some part of the system you envision. The tangible artifact you create could be high-tech or low tech. For instance, if your system concept is a toy for kids that measures soil pH, you might prototype the actual sensor or the physical form it might take on; if your system is a gift economy where people send each other plants grown in their home soil, you might prototype a container or an image capture application that shares the results.

Post your assignment under the “soilsystem” category.

This assignment is worth 5 points
1 point for addressing each of the above questions (who, where/how, what issue, and success metrics)
1 point for prototyping a physical artifact that would be part of your system

Grand Canyon Hike UV Exposure

The hike into the tribal land of Havasupai Falls, Grand Canyon is an intense 12 mile hike through various rugged terrains. Descending over 2000 feet, the climate changes drastically from the top to the bottom. The one consistent heat related aspect of the hike is the intensity of the sun. The sun intensity drastically effects the experience of heat throughout the hike. Beginning at 5800ft elevation, the trailhead is often scorching hot as their is no shade throughout the first 2 hours of the hike. Once you have completely descended into the canyon, the walls begin to provide sporadic shade. However, hikers are still exposed to the sunshine more than the little shade available. As such, the experience of descending into the canyon is very intense(even more so on return as you are progressing uphill).


As I prepared to descend the Canyon with my friends, I finalized a DIY UV sensor to measure the amount of UV, Infrared and visible light intensity. I embedded the system into the top of my hat. Hats are critical for protecting your face, neck, shoulders, eyes and body. As such, I collected a sampling of the intensity of these variables throughout the descent from the Supai Hilltop to the Havasupai Village, some 8 miles and 2000 feet in elevation. I recorded the start time as we took our first steps from the hillside.

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Using a 9V battery afforded the compact installation of the full system into the inside top of my shade hat.

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I chose to ditch the breadboard because I had plenty of power and ground sources as well as ports to wire my peripherals into. I borrowed an OpenLog SD card reader/writer to the solution to enable portable capture of the incoming data.

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Soldering the cables assured the smallest system possible for portable and hassle free data recording. I also used ziplock baggies to enclose the equipment to ensure they remain dry and free of dirt and dust(and especially catepillars who were in huge quantities)


Although I used my handkerchief as the barrier between my skull and 9V of streaming data electrons, I prototyped the solution using a shopping bag.

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I also made sure to log my on/off times so as to compare my narrative from human experience to help identify data anomalies or variations. Of course, shaded parts of the canyon will reduce the UV index and likely other data points. Most of the shade should have been in the end of the data stream for example(as we arrived in the village, we experienced more tree and canyon shade.

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Although the data is now being reviewed, I can see in the data where some of my experience is analogous with the recorded information.


Additionally, I think this is a pretty cool solution to data capture in a Do It Yourself approach to creative science exploration. I look forward to further analyzing the data. First off, is creating some temporal markers for inference,