The Pittsburgh Voyager Project

 Rapid prototyping class helps a unique nonprofit float new ideas in science education

August 5, 2004

Standing with his back against the rail of the boat, and squinting into the setting sun to survey the bustle of activity aboard the 80-foot-long craft, Buhl University Professor of ECE and CS Dan Siewiorek explained that his course in Rapid Prototyping of Computer Systems is not confined to building mock-ups of devices: "We build prototypes of experiences."

The boat, the Discovery, was once a U.S. Navy training vessel. During the mid-1990s, it and a similar boat were donated to a nonprofit organization called Pittsburgh Voyager. That group – started by a cadre of parents devoted to science education for schoolchildren – outfitted the boats as floating laboratories. Local educators helped to design programs for hands-on study of the ecology of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Since then more than 40,000 public-and private-school students in grades 5 through 12 have taken part in the acclaimed Pittsburgh Voyager programs. After preparatory learning at their schools, they board one of the boats for a cruise filled with observation and experiments: sampling and analyzing river water, detecting and counting forms of aquatic life (of which the cleaned-up rivers now support a wide variety) and so forth.

Recently the nonprofit has been raising money to build a new, larger boat replacing the old Navy vessels. All systems and equipment are to be upgraded in the process, and so it was that early this year, 24 Carnegie Mellon seniors and graduate students were given a challenge. Their task for the spring-semester Rapid Prototyping course was to show how the Pittsburgh Voyager experience could be further enhanced through information technology. Their best ideas would be implemented when the new boat launches in 2005.

"This kind of project is nothing new for us," said Research Professor Asim Smailagic, who co-teaches the course." Students in Rapid Prototyping have been doing cutting-edge work."

Jonathan Pui, a master's student in ECE, found the Voyager project intriguing because it was a real-world, group-learning exercise in designing real-world, group-learning systems for others. "The Voyager motto is 'Tell me, I'll forget; show me, I might remember; involve me, I'll understand.' And I really like that concept," he said.

Stow the Clipboards; Let’s Go Digital

Rapid prototyping is a way to quickly explore all aspects of a project, from end-users' needs and desires to the feasibility of solutions. The Carnegie Mellon students talked with Voyager staff and observed children on the boats. Divided into work teams, they began problem-solving. And on an evening in late April they converged at the shore of the Ohio River near Carnegie Science Center, where Discovery was docked, to conduct a demo. It featured a veritable boatload of ideas.

At present, for instance, data collection on Voyager cruises is paper-intensive. Crowds of youngsters log their findings on clipboards, and later – perhaps days or weeks later – a staff person keys all the results into a central database. Not only is this unwieldy, it makes it hard to do certain kinds of data analysis and follow-up learning.

So, at the demo, Rapid Prototypers playing the roles of "schoolchildren" were armed with PDAs. The Handheld Devices Team had evaluated various off-the-shelf units, chosen a winner, and developed a multi-page data-entry interface that could handle anything from numerical readings (such as pH levels) to bird sightings: you could even call up images of different kinds of ducks, hawks and other birds for help with ID. Meanwhile the Scientific Data Team had adapted a powerful open-source MySQL relational database, installing it on a PC aboard the boat. The Wireless Communications team had rigged an onboard 802.11b network, allowing all devices to link up via wireless cards.

The PC could now serve the user-interface pages, in HTML format, to the handhelds – a setup the teams had chosen to permit easy development of new pages, while reducing the computational load on the handhelds. And any data entered in a handheld was instantly relayed to the database in the PC.

"It's a systems integration job," said Dan Sieworiek. "The teams had to do the glue logic, and they had to fit the whole thing into the processes that people have."

Beth O'Toole, executive director of Pittsburgh Voyager, was delighted at the fit. "This will allow teachers and students to review and analyze data as they collect it," she said. "Generating graphs, looking for trends and testing hypotheses will be much easier." For example, O'Toole noted, a group could compare their data to what other groups had found on other days and ask questions like: "How does water temperature affect dissolved oxygen?"

For the Rapid Prototyping students, making the pieces work together was a non-trivial task. In addition to the technical complexity, there was simply the fact that "we had lots of people doing lots of things," said Karolina Werner, leader of the Handhelds team. "No matter how you plan, different teams and people have different pictures in mind. They're doing things that others are not aware of." But as Werner concluded, "that's to be expected." Coordinating diverse efforts on the fly is part of the learning process.

Up-Close Images and Long-Distance Reach

There was more. Students from majors other than ECE were in the course. The Space and Green Design team performed a "human flow" analysis, then built a model showing how the new boat could be laid out to best accommodate larger groups of schoolchildren. That team also studied the cost and benefits of running the boat's engines on clean-burning bio-diesel fuel and, for the demo, set up solar panels to re-charge the PDAs.

Another issue: Children on the cruises enjoy finding microscopic life forms in water samples. At present, numerous microscopes are provided but only the instructor's is linked to a video display. So the Microscope and Digital Camera team proposed an image-sharing system designed around new equipment. Beth O'Toole expected the system to be very popular: "If a kid on any microscope finds a water bear [a rare, fascinating creature that resembles a 6-legged mini-bear], or catches a zooplankton eating phytoplankton, everyone will be able to have a good look."

Images also can be uploaded to the database and the Voyager Web site for follow-up study – or for use in "memorabilia" books that students show to friends and parents. These are more than a frill, noted O'Toole. "When kids leave the boat, they're excited. They've found that the rivers are full of life and they've been able to observe it; they've literally been scientists for a day. If we can help them convey that excitement, it reinforces an interest in science."

But the item stirring the most excitement at the demo was a ship-to-shore wireless system. The Wireless Team had mounted a base-station antenna high on Mt. Washington, above the rivers. Students at the antenna site scrawled hand-written messages, and as these appeared in real time on the PC screen aboard the Discovery, the cabin filled with applause.

This rather modest demo had deeper R&D behind it and mission-critical duties ahead of it. "We've been looking for ways to bring the Voyager experience to a wider audience," explained Chip Berger, owner of Berger Investment Group and president of Pittsburgh Voyager. To that end the nonprofit will soon build a River Discovery Center and Landing at Station Square, across the Smithfield Street Bridge from downtown. Project Voyager is pursuing state funding to create an 11,000-square-foot classroom, lab and exhibition space on a floating barge that will be permanently moored to the south shore. And the Wireless Team has found that it is feasible, through the hilltop antenna rig, to provide a high-speed 18 Mbps link between such a land center and a boat cruising any of the three rivers, up to at least two miles away. Visitors to the center could then follow, and interact with, activities aboard the boat.

Moreover, with the Voyager database and Web server housed at the land center, long-distance collaboration is envisioned. As O'Toole said, "If we can communicate with the center we can communicate with any school that taps onto our Web site. A school in West Virginia could be studying the Monongahela River there and comparing it to what we find here. Or a school in Cincinnati could compare the Ohio River there with conditions here at its source," Berger added.

Voyager's aims are high. Along with environmental science, the nonprofit now offers a middle-school program focused on the design of boats, bridges and the built environment along the rivers – and it's hoped that all programs can have a wide reach. Said Berger, "This is going to be the center for river education in the country."

Next Steps

Many details must yet be worked out in the systems demo'd by the Rapid Prototypers. The ship-to-shore wireless network will need a great deal of precision aiming and fine-tuning. "We thought the rivers would be wide open. But the bridges! Bridges are bad for wireless signals. Even the water absorbs signals instead of bouncing them," said ECE senior Matt Rogers.

Overall, however, Pittsburgh Voyager staff members gave the demo rave reviews. Education Manager Jeff Jordan, a former high school biology teacher, said he and his colleagues will be busy weighing how best to apply the various technologies. "For instance, one question is whether to use the PDAs strictly for data entry or for content support [i.e., presenting materials] as well," he said. 'The Carnegie Mellon people have given us a lot of options. The scope of what they accomplished in a short time is phenomenal. Now it's up to us to take the next steps."

Reprinted with permission from Electrical and Computer Engineering Currents, Summer 2004. Text by Mike Vargo; Photography by Larry Rippel.

Running the Voyager’s engines on biodiesel fuel and using solar panels to recharge the PDAs were among the concepts explored by the Space and Green Design Team. The students built solar panels for the class.

Pittsburgh’s three rivers were the setting for the spring semester’s Rapid Prototyping class final project demos.

The PDA date-entry interface, developed by the Handheld Team, can handle anything from numerical readings to bird sightings.

On board the boat Voyager, students demoed the use of information technology to enhance the experience for thousands of visitors to the Pittsburgh Voyager fleet each year.

Students from other departments and colleges on the Space and Green Design team explored the critical problem of how to make the best use of the small amount of space on the Voyager.

Beth O’Toole, executive director of the Voyager Project, talks with students on the Microscope and Digital Camera Team who proposed an image-sharing system.

Running the Voyager’s engines on biodiesel fuel and using solar panels to recharge the PDAs were among the concepts explored by the Space and Green Design Team.

Pittsburgh's rivers