The Lewisburg Community Garden grows fruits and vegetables for donation to several local hot-meal programs and food banks, so it's helpful to keep track of how much food the garden produces. Garden volunteers, many of them Bucknell University students, keep written tallies of what they harvest, which they then deliver to Bucknell's Office of Civic Engagement, 1 mile away from the garden in downtown Lewisburg, where University staff input the count into a spreadsheet. It's a lot of extra work for an organization run mostly by volunteers.
This summer, a team of undergraduate computer engineers stepped forward with a solution: Bring wireless internet access to the garden, allowing staff and volunteers to input their harvest yields, watering information and other data online from the site.
Working with Professor Philip Asare, electrical & computer engineering, Brazilian exchange students Leo Brozinga Viglino, Filipe Mariano de Freitas and Gian Arcoverde Gobbo researched means for bringing Wi-Fi to the garden before building a solar-powered hotspot using a Verizon LTE Modem and a Wi-Fi-equipped Raspberry Pi minicomputer.
Streamlining data management is just one of the ways the garden will benefit from the Wi-Fi access the summer research project provides, said Kyle Bray, assistant director of service-learning for the Office of Civic Engagement, who manages the garden. Volunteers working at the site will be able to go online to get immediate answers to gardening questions.
"If it looks like something is ready to harvest but it's something we haven't grown before, we can hop online and look up information to see if it's ready," Bray said. "Or if there's an insect that we don't recognize, or a disease that we're not familiar with, we can search for photos."
The project also lays a foundation for future experiments and collaborations between the garden and Bucknell. In addition to installing Wi-Fi, the engineering students built a ground-moisture sensor that communicates data through the hotspot — intending it as a proof-of-concept test for future remote monitoring projects in the garden.
"We've been doing more and more partnerships with specific courses at Bucknell, particularly engineering courses," Bray said. "A lot of the ideas that students have require Wi-Fi. There's been talk of creating apps for the irrigation system so people could use their phones to turn it on and off, for example."
"The idea is to put in technologies that help the garden but also allow students to learn about these technologies," said Asare. "The garden is very open to being a platform for student learning and research."
The students who completed the Wi-Fi project gained professional experience in working with a client and navigating the constraints the garden imposes. Now in its fifth year of operation, the community garden is a collaborative effort between Bucknell and the Borough of Lewisburg. Half the garden holds 39 plots available for rent by community members, while the rest is used to grow produce for donation, primarily at Community Harvest, a hot meal program run by the Office of Civic Engagement. Site-specific challenges included the lack of power and a prohibition on building permanent structures at the garden, since it is located in a flood plain. The students also had to interpret their client's needs in choosing the best solution among several options, including extending Bucknell's wireless network.
"None of us had worked with the tools we used to do this project — we basically had to find our way through it," de Frefitas said. "In the lab, you're told what you have to do and how to do it. Here we set our own goals."
"We had to decide everything from the beginning and research all the possibilities for bringing internet here," added Gobbo. "That was the main challenge."
The Wi-Fi installation builds on a series of upgrades enacted in partnership with Bucknell classes and student design projects. A Management 101 project installed a removable fence around the garden in 2015, and last semester, Grand Challenge Scholar Chau Le '16 upgraded a drip-irrigation system previously installed in partnership with Cole's Hardware. Another Grand Challenge Scholar, Claire Rodgers '16, designed cold frames for the garden using storm windows reclaimed from the recent renovation of Dana Engineering. Bray hopes the frames can be installed soon.
"Our goal is to be able to grow and access the garden year round," he said.
The garden has also played an increasing role as a learning laboratory for Bucknell classes, including courses in the food systems minor, Integrated Perspectives courses and an entomology class that uses the site for insect collection.
"The core mission of the garden is still to address food insecurity in the area," Bray said, "but as the garden has progressed over the years, everyone behind it has put a bigger emphasis on having it serve not just as a food production resource but also as an educational resource."
Asare and his students said they're happy they can help the garden grow in its educational role.
"I wanted this project to be local and relevant," said Asare. "I wanted it to benefit the Bucknell community so they could see how the skills they're learning in class apply. These are real people with real problems, and you can help now. It's very real and very meaningful."
"It's good to know that we had an impact somewhere so far from home," added Viglino. "It feels good to contribute. And it could be the base for many other projects, so our work will continue."