GreenSTEM as it exists now barely resembles what it was when it came through Code for Philly’s front doors.

Matt Fritch, who brought the idea for greenSTEM to Code for Philly, sees this ‘graduation’ as a good thing.

“I think naturally, the project outgrew Code for Philly,” Matt says. He thinks that at some point, all projects born at Code for Philly need to be able to step away and stand on their own.

Looking at greenSTEM now, with its roots buried deep within the city and connected to other civic and non profit and educational organizations—it’s hard to argue with him about that.

How GreenSTEM Was Born

In cities like Philadelphia, rain falls on buildings, parking lots, and streets before draining into the sewer, carrying trash and other pollutants with it. Green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) are things like rain gardens and green roofs and stormwater planters that provide rainwater more opportunities to be absorbed by soil and plants, cutting down on pollutants that enter Philadelphia sewers.

An environmental engineer with the Philadelphia Water Department, Matt Fritch wanted to develop a way for students in Philadelphia schools to monitor green stormwater infrastructure.

PWD had already brought GSI to schools across Philadelphia. Matt’s idea seemed like a win-win. Students would get access to vital STEM education by monitoring the GSI at their school and PWD would be able to collect data on the effectiveness of the GSI.

But getting the idea off the ground and into development would take more than one, admittedly very dedicated, PWD employee/STEM educator. Undeterred, Matt took his idea to a hackathon sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Philadelphia School District.

Projects born at hackathons are known to burn bright and fast, with all the help in the world to be found for a few hours, only to then vanish when the hackathon ends. To avoid this, you can either pitch a project simple enough to be completed within the time limit of the hackathon, or you can be Matt Fritch, with an idea that quickly drew the attention of programmers and then Code for Philly members Christopher Nies, Jason Blanchard, and Kevin Clough.

How GreenSTEM Flourished

With Help From Code for Philly

To avoid greenSTEM becoming another hackathon flash-in-the-pan, it was suggested that Code for Philly meetings be used to continue work on the project.

Having a fixed, scheduled time to work on the project probably helped to push greenSTEM along. As did Matt’s passion for the project, which never faded. He readily admits to showing up at Code for Philly every week and acting as a human version of the poke feature on Facebook. Sometimes, in fact, many times, this is not only appreciated but vital when it comes to getting civic technology projects to the finish line.

At their Code for Philly meetings, the greenSTEM team of civic hackers and city employees realized that their project, with additional talent and hardware costs, would need additional funding. The Philadelphia Water Department, a partner organization of Code for Philly and eventual beneficiary of greenSTEM, seemed the natural choice to approach for a grant. The greenSTEM team pitched their project to PWD, won the grant, and applied their new funding towards hiring additional developers who explored new, more complicated features for greenSTEM.

Soon greenSTEM had a functional prototype of what they called the Root Kit. Touted as a “do-it-yourself environmental sensor kit for schools” the Root Kit itself was comprised of two units, one that stayed inside the school to receive data from the other unit which went outside to sit amongst the soil and plants. The outside unit was made up of a temperature sensor and three soil moisture sensors, all contained in a waterproof case. After installing the Root Kit at their school, students were able to wirelessly monitor the state of their rain gardens in real time on greenSTEM’s website.

Nebinger students installing root kit
Nebinger students installing root kit

The Future of GreenSTEM

From one idea with one outcome, greenSTEM has grown into a larger initiative focusing on developing new environmental technologies and new STEM learning opportunities.

Since 2014, greenSTEM has:

  • Launched Root Kit 2.0, 9 of which were deployed by PWD in 2017 to monitor different water department sites
  • Partnered with Fairmount Water Works and 8th graders at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter school to build an underwater rover to document the conditions of Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia
  • Started work on a smart rain barrel with 7th graders at Penn Alexander
  • Collaborated with students from Mariana Barcetti Academy Charter School’s STEM Challenge Club to develop a Sewer Inlet Monitor device

A lot of the tech development that greenSTEM is currently doing is happening through a research contract with Drexel University.

“We’re partnering with them to explore new technologies,” Matt says. He also admits that while they’ve accomplished a lot working with Philadelphia students, greenSTEM has taken a small step away from personal in-class instruction. Though, looking at what they’ve accomplished, it’s worth wondering if Matt doesn’t just have a different definition of the word “small” than most people.