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Discover how an 8th-grader is solving real-world problems with IoT

Learn how an 8th-grade girl used IoT to build a voice-control jelly feeder and won her way to the national competition of Technology Student Association.

Zoey Ren article author avatarZoey RenApril 11, 2019
Discover how an 8th-grader is solving real-world problems with IoT

IoT and jellyfish. I am still amazed by how an 8th-grade student made a connection between these two and solved a real-life problem with her creativity and determination.

Catherine Li, with the help of Addison Liholt, the DREAM lab coordinator at the Baldwin School in Philadelphia, debuted her IoT project AutoJellie at the regional conference of Technology Student Association (TSA) and won the first-prize pass to compete in a nationwide competition this March.


It all started from a problem raised by a science teacher feeding moon jellyfish. Feeding jellyfish has its unique challenge because the jellies only prefer to eat live brine shrimp that are at an adult stage in their life. That’s not always easy to time, so a normal fish feeder is out of the question.

What people usually do is to buy a cylinder contraption with different stages for the shrimp to grow, and then manually extract these teeny-tiny shrimp in a cup to feed the jellies. You can imagine how difficult it is, let alone to do it at a daily routine. So the science teacher found Addison for a better solution, and he brought this challenge to the DREAM lab.

The DREAM lab stands for design, robotics, engineering, art, and mathematics, and it’s like a makerspace for this all-girl middle school. Students in the eighth grade can devote a quarter on their capstone projects and incorporate resources from the lab into their projects. Most cases students identify a problem based on research and in other cases, people come to them with problems that can be addressed in the lab. This was one of these situations.


Like many other IoT projects, Catherine and Addison went through lots of iterations. They started their first iteration by 3D printing a similar-looking cylinder that would allow the shrimp to go through its growth cycle, but then they realized they didn’t need it to look like the regular container.

They then printed out a new version of the container that was rectangular with removable door passages. This made it easier for them to adjust the number of doors after they determine the actual length of time it takes to produce optimum shrimp.

The next step was to find a way to release the shrimp from the container into the tank. They decided to use a linear actuator and attached it to a servo powered by a Particle Photon. They were able to operate the servo to open and close at a specific rate after several tries and learning on the Internet, but Addison wanted to push the students and take it a step further.

“Hey Alexa, feed the jellies!”

“Let’s connect some voice capability! Let’s have an Alexa OG and have it connected to the Particle Photon!” Addison said. “I told Catherine it was really just like a three-step process: You set it up on the Amazon site, communicate via the function, and use IFTTT to control it. It’s not that big of a step for me, but Catherine was happy because she took so long on this whole process up until this point. We were even going further than what she thought impossible.”


When Cathrine presented her project and ran through her program at the end of the capstone, she was too focused to notice the astonishment from her classmates. “I needed to give her a recap of their reaction,” Addison opened his eyes wide and dropped his jaw. “This is what I did, and I could see her just grin from side to side.”

“It was a really fun process to see her go through from start to finish. And I don’t know how we would’ve done it if Particle wasn’t that convenient. The Photon is so very small, and we were able to wire everything directly to it.” Addison said, “We could’ve probably went through some sort of system on a Raspberry Pi, but to have the IoT part of it so seamless, for middle schoolers at least, is important. They aren’t just coding anymore, which makes that hurdle a lot easier to jump.”


Catherine isn’t the only girl interested in hands-on IoT projects that solve real-life problems. One girl’s idea was to make a chicken egg incubator that could be controlled remotely via phones to automate process and monitor temperature. Some other proof-of-concept projects were Alexa-enabled foot-warming slippers and a tracking system for children and parents.

“The best part is to make them see the connection between IoT and their real life.” Addison said, “These middle schoolers might interact with IoT many times, but they don’t know what IoT is until they see the device, realize the connection, and program it.”

As a true believer of the potential of the girls and their projects, Addison wants to cultivate the willpower and “maker spirit” in them. “We want the girls to have confidence in themselves and be strong in anything they try. The goal is to make them literate in technology so that if somebody says those three letters, IoT, that’s not the first time they hear them. What’s more, they know what it is, how to apply it, or have already made something with it.”

Learn more about the exciting programs at The Baldwin School’s DREAM Lab, and see how they are empowering the next generation of STEM in the classroom.