Students Invent Flood-Detection Device

By Justine McDaniel
The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Kate Pelcin and Kristina Griste dipped the Aqua Tweeter into water, and the flood-detection device posted to Twitter:
“At least three inches of water. Is your sump pump working?”

Last week, the “flood” was just a pool set up in Gavin Speirs’ classroom at Downingtown High School West.

But soon, Aqua Tweeters are to be set up in flood-prone Downingtown Borough, allowing people to monitor water levels in public places via Twitter.

Pelcin, Griste, and classmate Andrew Kim invented the device in Speirs’ Introduction to Engineering Design class. They wanted to help with what they said is one of the biggest problems at the high school — flooded student parking lots.

But when Borough Council members caught wind of the idea, they asked the students to create Aqua Tweeters to place around the town, through which Brandywine Creek runs.

“There are lots of locations throughout Downingtown where this could be useful for residents, for emergency services, and for businesses,” Mayor Josh Maxwell said.

Downingtown property owners have filed more claims to the National Flood Insurance Program than those of any other municipality in Chester County, according to records dating to 1978. It has received more than $2 million in payouts, the third-highest amount in the county, according to NFIP data.

The Aqua Tweeter is equipped with a long sensor that measures the depth of water and a tiny camera that takes a photograph of the scene. Connected to WiFi or a cellular network, it then tweets the picture and information on a public Twitter account.

Followers can then decide whether they need to take action, such as moving their car or avoiding a flooded street, Pelcin and Griste said. It can be used to monitor streets, parking lots, or even basements.

Pelcin, a sophomore, and Griste and Kim, both freshmen, created the prototype with help from Speirs and outside adviser Michael Stratoti, a Bentley Systems software developer who volunteered to help the class.

The class is part of a national college-prep engineering program called Project Lead the Way, new this year at Downingtown West and East High Schools.

Speirs has about 40 students in two classes this year. Next year, he is set to teach four engineering classes, for which 123 students have signed up, he said.

“Ever since I was little, I always wanted to be an engineer, and they never had classes like this. . . . I knew I had to take it,” Pelcin said.

The girls said they have picked up design and computer skills and developed confidence that helps them collaborate with others, advocate for themselves, and make presentations.

They are proud of their invention, especially because they are young women in a classically male-dominated field. About 60 percent of his engineering students are boys, Speirs said.

When people hear about their project, Griste said, they often say: “Yes! A girl is in engineering. We can actually do this. We have girl power.”

They plan to deliver Aqua Tweeters to the borough by the end of the school year in June. Two will be placed in parking lots. If they work, the borough wants more.

Speirs said they did not have plans to pursue a patent and would consider it open-source technology. The goal, simply, “is to try to make the world a better place,” he said.

Pelcin and Griste are thinking about what else they can do with the device. It could be modified to sense and photograph vandals in a public park or birds visiting a feeder. Both are ideas they and classmates plan to work on.

“We’re really proud. I was impressed,” Pelcin said. “I can’t believe I made something with my bare hands that actually works.”

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