Curtis Shaw, Jacob Coles, Tom Forsythe, Zoe Barnes and Matt Howells with the prototype

Curtis Shaw, Jacob Coles, Tom Forsythe, Zoe Barnes and Matt Howells with the prototype

Rwanda, Laos, Sikkim: these are just some of the far-flung locations students from Writhlington school in Somerset have ventured in the name of orchid conservation. Now they are bringing their expertise back home, developing a technological aid for orchid growers in the UK. Since April 2012, in a project funded by the Royal Society Partnership Grants scheme, students have been working with technology firm Science Scope to develop environmental growth chambers for the cultivation of rare orchid species.

The idea: BioBox, the first growth chamber to re-create the environmental conditions of native orchids in real time, is linked via the internet to environmental sensors in the tropical forests of Sikkim and Laos, using this data to generate conditions within the box. Lead teacher on the project, Simon Pugh-Jones MBE, worked with students from the school’s extra-curricular greenhouse project, electronics club and manufacturing club to synthesise an interdisciplinary project which develops student skills in plant sciences, electronics, computer programming and mechanical design, as well as business (the project is run as a social enterprise). Student Jacob Coles comments: ‘it’s nice to be able to use science – all types of science, not just orchid science – in a new and interesting way.’

Students identified three environmental factors to monitor and control: temperature, light and humidity. They worked with scientists at Science Scope, led by David Crellin, Design Engineer, to develop a series of three prototypes of the box, culminating in a full-size acrylic unit which allows plant testing to determine design performance before moving on to commercial production. Y12 student Curtis Shaw led on electronic design of the product, based around a programmable micro-control board. Curtis and his team developed code over a period of months to collect data from sensors and control outputs, enabling the creation of optimum conditions in the BioBox. Students developed key manufacturing skills such as laser cutting in a range of key components, including electrical heat pumps, an ultrasonic humidifier and LED lighting strips. Also carrying out competitor research and marketing the product for sale, students developed their technical expertise in a genuine commercial setting.

Students developed science communication skills through presenting their products at a variety of events, including the Sunday Times Festival of Education, the Big Bang fair, the Royal Horticultural Society’s London International Orchid Show and Britain in Bloom. Marie-Claude Dupuis, Education Outreach Manager at the Royal Society, comments: ‘this is a brilliant project as it develops students’ skills in a range of disciplines, as well as making connections across the globe. Their extensive science communication work is a great example of scientists taking their work into the communities that will benefit – we’re very lucky that these are the scientists of tomorrow!’

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