Our biosensor array team was recently featured on the Make blog:
I really liked the answers that team member Shawn Blaszak wrote up but unfortunately they didn't make it into the Make post, so I figured I would post them here.
1. What was it like working on the GGHC challenge?
ANSWER: Working on the challenge has been a lot of fun for me. My mom is a teacher, so I've always had an affinity towards k-12 education and am familiar with many of the difficulties educators face in this country (to say nothing of what teachers in third world countries must face). I've found it really rewarding to know that I'm working on a project that could help teachers all over the world lower the cost of entry to something that can help students learn about how the human body works and, possibly, about electronics. Also, we've seen a huge showing of support from the membership of our PS:One. As the project progressed towards the contest deadline, even members that were not, originally, signed up for the contest team have pulled together to help advance the project. In all honesty, I believe that this may constitute the largest number of PS:One members that collaborated on a single, organized, project. Considering that, as I’m sure is common at other spaces, organizing hackers can, often, feel like herding cats, I find this to be an amazing accomplishment that serves to help bring out space community together while, simultaneously, producing something to make the world a better place.
2. How did you split up roles with your teammates?
ANSWER: Our roles, for this project, have been split in, what I would describe as, an organic manner. There has never, really, been a “leader” for the project (though, Avner Shanan did take lead on ensuring timely blog posts and most communications with the event organizers). Major decisions were discussed, amicably, in groups. This, usually, happened in person after our weekly space meetings but, also, happened on the mailing list we created, specifically, for this project. Personally, I believe that our ability to have regular, in person, meetings really helped to improve communication amongst the group as well as group cohesion. As for the work itself, we agreed to split it amongst the group members based on the interests and skill sets of the individuals involved. We had a large enough number of members interested in participating that we were able to have a wide range of skills available to us. Members (such as Dan Dumitrescu, Drew Fustini, and Bill Mania) that were better with electronics took “ownership” of individual sensors; others took responsibility for documentation (such as Avner Shanan); etc. In the end, our system was flexible enough that when, as is inevitable with a volunteer based group project like this, some members had to stop participating, we were able to compensate for the loss.
3. In coming up with a project, did the educational requirement of the contest pose a special challenge for you?
ANSWER: I don’t know that I would say it posed a “special” challenge for us, but I would say it was definitely a challenge. Having a teacher for a parent I, personally, feel I had an advantage in having some basic knowledge about the mindset of teachers; their average technical competency; and what kind of environment they have to deal with on a daily basis (at least in the U.S.). On the other hand, it’s still pretty hard to put yourself in the shoes of a real-world teacher and come up with something totally new that would significantly improve their ability to perform their job and, also, be cheap enough/easy enough to build that they can put it together.
4. How did you come up with your idea?
ANSWER: Our first team meeting consisted of a brainstorming session for project ideas. As I remember it, one of our other members (I don’t remember who) suggested doing something with DIY biology. From there, we fleshed out the idea of doing a low cost, unified, biosensor array. This lead to further discussion of things like what sensors we thought we could do in the time allotted; what kinds of teachers might find it useful; what the target age groups might be; etc.
5. Tell me about the sort of student who you think would learn a lot from the Biosensor Array project.
ANSWER: Right now, our primary target age group is in the Junior High and High School age range. It was our intent that it might appeal to biology, health, and gym teachers for giving their class a direct view of what goes on in the human body. With a more simplified/colorful software interface and/or a simple game, it might be possible to extend the target range into younger groups. A secondary group that might find the project appealing would be junior high and high school technology classes interested in building the project in class as a way of teaching the kids basic electronics. An ideal situation might be where a school’s technology teacher builds the project as a class exercise and then passes the finished unit(s) along to the school’s biology/health/gym teacher for use in their class.
6. What was it like working with all those sensors?
ANSWER: If I had to put it in one word, I think I’d say “challenging”. We learned, early on, that each sensor seemed to have it’s own “personality”. For example, some sensors (such as temperature) were very stable while others (such as Galvanic Skin Response and ECG/EKG) were inherently instable because of how sensitive they are and how reliant they are on a stable mechanical connection with human skin. Much of the challenge was in figuring out how much filtering each sensor needed to overcome things like ambient noise. It was really rewarding seeing the final, clear, signal once we got each sensor working.
7. One requirement of the contest is that the project be easily reproducible, what sort of skill level is needed to build the Biosensor Array? ANSWER: We’ve tried to keep the difficulty of constructing and using our project as low as possible. Early on, the decision was made to base the whole thing on Arduino protoboard shields and through-hole components. While we would, eventually, like to see a custom PCB version of the system, using shields, protoboard, and through-hole components means that anyone with basic soldering skills, and a minimum of hand-eye coordination, should be able to follow our build instructions and put together their own functioning unit.