Public Lab Research note

Making Pedagogy: Reflections on Northeastern University Thermal Fishing Bob Workshops

by sara | May 23, 2014 19:08 23 May 19:08 | #10506 | #10506

Reflections on Northeastern University Thermal Fishing Bob Workshops

A striking example of how scientific data can be beautiful, this “data rich image” shows the water temperature of an ornamental pond at Northeastern University. It was made using a Thermal Fishing bob that sociology, environmental science and health science students put together in my Community and Public Health and Environment+Technology courses this semester. Using an open source long exposure photography application, the students pulled the fishing bob around the perimeter of the pond, to map the temperature with light. While this example may seem small scale, it has wider implications, as one undergraduate health science student reports:

“Granted, I hope no one will be swimming in the pond outside AfterHours, but the idea has grander implications. Keeping track of our effects on the water, air, and ground are important responsibilities to follow if we hope to avoid damaging our environment…environmental health is the responsibility of more than just organizations like the EPA; we as inhabitants of the planet are equally accountable. Simple projects that anyone can become involved in allow greater and faster collaboration of data that can be used to improve how we live in the world – and how we protect ourselves from our current methods of living.”

As a teacher and co-founder of Public Lab the one of the most exciting parts of this project was how readily the students ,who were by in large completely unfamiliar with electronics and programming, made and programmed the Thermal Bobs:

“I found it very interesting how easy the thermal fishing bobs were to make and to use. I wasn’t aware that Arduino code could be downloaded and used by anyone if written as open-source. I instead was under the impression that in order to program a device such as the thermal fishing bob we created you had to be knowledgeable in some sort of programming code. Alternatively, it was very easy to download the code and program the Arduino board. Setting up the physical Arduino circuit was relatively easy as well and we successfully completed our fishing bob with little to no guidance (as long as detailed instructions were provided).”


Picture of students being lead by Michelle Hoblit (my Teaching Assistant) in how to install Arduino and set up the Thermal Fishing Bob Sketch. We found this technique of written directions and small groups working together very effective as one student notes:

“What I found interesting about this DIY Science project was the ease with which a small electronic system could be programed. The technology that we used could be programed in less than 20 minutes and was advanced enough to track temperature, which is surprising considering that I thought it would take a longer time and more experience to complete such a technologically advanced task.”

Students were organized into groups of 4, one student with access to a computer downloaded the Arduino software, while 2 other students built the Thermal Fishing bob circuit. The final student took charge of manufacturing the Thermal Fishing Bob Housing.

We set up a long table for everyone to grab their materials. Hunting for the materials rather than being given a kit, helps the students figure out the parts they are looking for and builds their familiarity with the basic electronic components. To get students started while they are coming into class, I taught a few students how to cut and strip wires, and then had them teach the next students to arrive. Teaching students how to do this key but easy to pick up task is great, as it builds their confidence and establishes that they can rapidly teach each other. It also gives a subset of students familiarity with an important skill needed to complete the assignment; its relative ease makes the whole project seem more approachable.


Students really enjoyed doing the project themselves and reported feeling confident with trouble shooting and modifying the project because they put the circuits together:

“I found this project fascinating. I love having a DIY, hands-on approach to science, and in the field of public there are a multitude of ways to allow this. Actually building the bobber gave me a greater understanding of its function and allowed me to see any possible issues that may arise.”


A picture of students working through putting the circuit together with some help from me:

“I loved the fact that we did it ourselves. When you first explained it, I thought that is sounded very complicated and that we would pretty much just watch your setup. But, by doing it myself I felt like I not only understood the purpose of the project but I also felt ‘satisfied’ as a student by being able to work with circuits and computers (…which is not one of my strong suits!)”

As I was dashing around a lot, Dr. Beth Molnar, an Associate Professor of Health Science at Northeastern took on the job of documenting the organized chaos:




Classrooms are not typically designed for this kind of project, but as our day showed it’s a great opportunity to break out of the mold of lectures by sitting on the floor and turning chairs into tables. The solderless breadboards are perfect for beginners with electronics as wires can be simply “plugged in” rather than sealed together with melted metal (soldered).

The best part of the whole process for me was seeing the genuine excitement that students experienced when they managed to get their circuits working. Smiles were unforced and cheers and clapping were heard as students got their Fishing Bobs working:



One of the goals I had in getting involved in Public Lab was to try an demystify our everyday electronic objects, to create a space and set of tools that move people from being passive users of electronics to understanding how they are composed and from that understanding being able to recompose those objects. In reading the students reviews of the project it’s exciting to see such possibilities being realized:

“What I found most interesting about this project was how easily we were able to construct our own fishing bob. The circuit board proved user friendly and simple to learn, and even though it took us a little while to get the wiring set up correctly we were still able to figure it out. This is especially interesting because it opens up a whole world of opportunity for other related projects. While normally I would expect only a team of environmental scientists to truly evaluate our surroundings, perhaps this is not always the case. The open source software and information sharing allows us to actually try experimenting in our environment (the coastal imaging and mapping, for example, now seems a feasible task). I am curious now to see what other simple projects people are creating and utilizing in their own backyard.”

Particularly for women the barriers for getting involved in electronics and computer science can seem insurmountable. Technical cultures, which emphasize self-education, can feed into that problem as those unfamiliar with the culture have little idea of how to start on electronic projects. In addition to the students in the class two Social Science Post Docs with SSEHRI, Max Liboiron and Dvera Saxton joined us. Through working with me, they’ve both become familiar with Public Lab and begun attending Public Lab meet ups. However, this was their first experience with an electronics-making project. Both have expressed feeling alienated from participating on Public Lab’s list serv., because of the specialized language that tends to be used:

From the Public Lab List Serv. on March 6th:

Jeff Warren: Hey all - I don't mean to single anyone out, as I'm guilty too from time to time, but I wanted to suggest that we make extra effort to avoid scientific jargon, or to link to explanations when we do use it. Examples I've used myself: diffraction, attenuate, orthorectify

Part of the point of Public Lab is to make these techniques more accessible and easier, and one thing we can choose to do is to avoid unnecessarily obscure language, and/or not to assume others know what it means.

I for one am not formally trained in the sciences, and have had to pick up domain specific language on my own... it's tough!

Let's try to make it easier. I'm not saying that'll be easy in itself!

Dvera Saxton: AMEN! THANK YOU from an often technologically bewildered but citizen science loving anthropologist (social scientist). Research translation is hard work, but pays in upped participation and new friends and worker bees who will be enthusiastic about the projects !!!

Maybe we can run a workshop about how to talk to folks w/o science backgrounds? I know the Union of Concerned Scientists has webinars along those lines.

It was great to see both Dvera, Max and the many women undergraduates successfully make their Thermal Fishing Bobs:


Further evidence for how engagement in making encourages self-efficacy, students came up with many excellent ideas for extending and improving the Thermal Bobs, from adding an on/off switch to using different sensors such as air quality sensors. Hoblit, came up with trying disposable soup containers rather than powdered beverage containers as a housing. One group tried making their fishing bob with the soup container and reported much success:

“I felt that the Tupperware container worked better than the iced tea powder container because the plastic of the Tupperware is clearer and the light is seen easier. Also, most Tupperware is already waterproof, thus saving a step in the building process of the overall device."

A draw back with the powdered beverage contained that Catherin I’gnazio, Don Blair and I developed from the waste available during the Public Lab barnraising is getting the Arduino and breadboard in and out without dislodging the wires. The Tupperware solves this issue as the top is easily removed. The students used Velcro to affix the electronics to the top of the container and threaded the Thermistor through a hole they made in the bottom of the container. This orientation further protects the electronics from water, as the lid is pointed upwards.

In my Environment + Technology class we discussed the design aesthetic of Public Lab tools, as what Mat Lippincott Public Lab founder has described as Detritivore Design ( the reuse and misuse of what’s normally thought of as waste. Waste, particularly that of beverage containers is something we’ve become habituated to in late 20th century. However, environmental histories show how the costs for disposing of containers have been strategically displaced from manufacturers to consumers and municipalities by canned goods manufacturers who succeeded in expanding their supply chains by ceasing to collect and refill bottles (See Ted Steinberg, on Green Liberalism). Instead of picking up empty containers the mid 20th century beverage supplies began requiring consumers to buy the containers as well as the contents, rending the containers “waste” and dramatically increasing the problem of can and bottle litter. This move helped unsettle local beverage manufactures as it reduced the production costs for mass consumed beverages by half, as they no long had to recycle containers and helped build brands we all recognize today like Coke. The transition of containers from a reusable material investments made by producers, to waste for which consumers and further their municipalities are responsibility, helped create the disposable culture of the late 20th century.

Public Lab’s design aesthetic offers an alternative to discarding such materials as waste, and instead, as art teachers everywhere have for decades, regards waste as useful tools for repurposing. Learning how to recognize and value waste, and develop electronics whose jankety design reveals how they were put together, is important not only as an ecological practice but also in the design of accessible, affordable tools:


This made-at-home aesthetic is an important intervention into the dominant design ideals in electronics, which generally appear in a slick façade of titanium or polished plastic, whose internal parts are artfully opaque to the user. As theorist of science Donna Haraway describes in her thought provoking Cyborg Manifesto on feminism and technology:

“Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile -- a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore… The ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs is precisely why these sunshine-belt machines are so deadly. They are as hard to see politically as materially.”

The present disposability of electronics, their light as air feel, hides the weight of their production, the environmental degradation and social and political disparities between producers and consumers of high-end electronics.

The Thermal Fishing bob, like other Public Lab tools, works simultaneously at each of these levels: in the level of practice, by enabling users to become producers, at the level of design, to create alternative design ideals to those of disposable, sunlight machines, and at the level of purpose to create better tools for studying our own environments:

“What I found interesting about this project is that it is fairly easy and inexpensive to build the thermal fishing bob. This makes it possible for anyone who is interested in this problem, whether high school or graduate student, to be able to construct the device and produce meaningful data to support their experiment.”

“What was so incredible about the do-it-yourself thermal fishing bobs that we made in class was just how simple the entire process was. As demonstrated- almost anyone could do it even with a small budget. I can picture a middle school environmental science class or club making these thermal fishing bobs and testing bodies of water all over town.”

Indeed the students took them out to test them all over town examining the fens near campus. Reminiscent of walking a dog, here an Environmental Science undergraduate experimented with floating the bob along the creek edge. With her collaborator, they compared the temperature of the water in sunlight, to the water shadowed beneath the bridge. Making a walk into a scientific stroll, the thermal bob gave them a new way to interact with the space, and led them to investigate beneath the bridge in an unexpected ways. I love the contemporary Huck Finn feel to this picture, in which the students causally interact with this odd device.



The group reported that the device itself attracted a lot of attention with dog walkers and passers by stopping to inquire as to their purpose. This making of scientific research into a spectacle aspect of public lab tools has been noted previously with the balloon-mapping device. It’s exciting to see this device creating a similar stir. One of the passersby was a member of the Fens conservancy. Based on the interest she expressed in the project, we’ll be following up with this group to further experiment with thermally mapping the area.

Working with another classmate this group further innovated on this project by tethering their fishing bob to a remote controlled amphibious car. Their experiments show great promise for increasing the range and control of the Thermal Fishing bob. It is reminiscent of one the inspirations for Public Lab’s work across the board, Natalie Jermijenko’s Feral Robotic Dog project, in which Jermijenko and students added VOC sensors to robotic dog toys for release on brown field sites to detect ambient pollution.


The original idea for the Thermal Fishing bob came from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy in Brooklyn, where Eymund Diegel (a member of Public Lab’s board of directors) was interested in mapping Combined Sewage Inflows (CSOs) into the Gowanus Canal super fund site. CSOs, a focus of research in Public Lab by Leif Percival, are an environmental health problem because during storms raw sewage mixes with run off water and escapes untreated into waterways. The EPA maps for CSO’s are incomplete, however, we hypothesize the inflows can be detected by the bob because the water comes in at higher temperatures.

Diegel mocked up some images of what he hoped for:


The students work shows this ideal may well be realizable even when there is significant nighttime light pollution:


Even more exciting is to see is the development of this tool as entry way into an alternative way for people to think about environmental science and their involvement in their environments:

“This project also made me think about my own personal impact on the environment in a different light. We go about our daily lives without thinking about some of the things we are doing- when we go to the bathroom or throw away garbage we more often than not, fail to think about our actions in the moment. Where does the waste go? How is it getting there? This project helped me realize that we take local sanitation regulations and methods for granted. We assume that it is all taken care of, out of sight out of mind- that we don’t have to think about our waste. The fact of the matter is, it is in our best interest to BE interested in these topics in order to protect ourselves and our posterity.”


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