Atmospheric professors awarded grant for flexible, portable kit-based lab instruction - Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences - Purdue University Skip to main content

Atmospheric professors awarded grant for flexible, portable kit-based lab instruction


Writer(s): Cheryl Pierce

Jie Chen, PhD student of Professor Dan Chavas, demonstrates the DIYnamics LEGO Technics table with Colin Hamill, first year PhD student. This device, which will be included in the portable lab kits, can be used to demonstrate the same geophysical fluid dynamics experiments as the large tank version pictured behind Chen and Hamill in the Climate and Extreme Weather Lab.

A group of atmospheric professors have been awarded a 2020-2021 Instructional Equipment Grant from the Office of the Provost for their proposal entitled “Flexible, Portable Kit-Based Laboratory instruction in Atmospheric Science.” This grant funding will be used to create lab kits that students can check out and use remotely.

Professors involved with this grant are Robin Tanamachi, Lei Wang, Alexandria Johnson, Daniel Dawson, and Daniel Chavas of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at Purdue University. According to the grant proposal, “the pandemic of 2020 laid bare the need for novel, flexible approaches to laboratory instruction.”  The kits proposed by this group of professors will include tools that can be inventoried and checked out electronically.

These kits will include DIYnamics LEGO Technics tables, weather station kits with Kestrel 5400 weather meters, basic meteorological instrumentation kits, fast response temperature sensors, and Raspberry Pi-based aerosol measurement kits.  The equipment in these kits will be integrated into courses at all levels of the Atmospheric undergraduate curriculum as well as a small number of graduate courses.  The team estimates that the kits will serve 100 to 200 students per year.

Each item in the kit is designed to help students efficiently and remotely. According to Tanamachi, the team expects that kits will positively impact students participating in these types of lab exercises.  It will give the students extra flexibility to perform labs in their home setting, safely under the guidance of instructors regardless of whether the classes they are taking are in-person or remote.

Johnson says, “my guess is the hybrid model of teaching is here to stay, and the creation of this flex-lab lending library will provide our faculty with a variety of options and our students with tangible experiences, pandemic or not.”

This is echoed by other members of the team. 

“During the past year, we've had to contend with social distancing requirements that preclude us being able to require hands-on participation, or participation in close quarters, in many classroom demonstrations and activities,” says Tanamachi.  “Students have been going in and out of quarantine, and it's been challenging to keep them engaged from a distance. We want to provide students the opportunity to participate in the same or similar types of laboratory exercises at home that they would in person.”

The items in the kit were chosen by the entire team and each member had input on the types of equipment students in their courses would require.  Items range from highly technical equipment like Raspberry Pi single board computer and Kestrel hand-held weather meters to hands on items often associated with the toy industry like the LEGO kit.

According to Chavas, “our department currently has one large (person-sized) rotating tank that can be used to do geophysical fluid dynamics experiments -- to demonstrate how rotation affects the movement of fluid, analogous to how the Earth's rotation affects the movement of our atmosphere and ocean. However, that tank cost $6,000 and is bulky, so it is difficult for individual students to use and feel comfortable getting their hands dirty with experiments. The LEGO-based kits are much more tinker-friendly -- they let each student explore similar physics concepts in an inexpensive, compact setup using familiar ‘toys’ and household items.”

Johnson proposed the Raspberry Pi particle counter kits.  She feels they will be valuable to students for a variety of reasons. 

“First,” says Johnson, “I always find it difficult to convey just how many solid particles (aerosols) there are in the air, and how the number of particles changes from an indoor to an outdoor rural or outdoor urban environment. Giving students the ability and freedom to collect these measurements will help cement their understanding of something that surrounds us every moment of every day, but is virtually invisible. Second, these sensors are tuned for detection and counting of PM2.5 (particles with diameter of < 2.5 micrometers) and PM10 (particles with a diameter of < 10 micrometers) aerosols. These play a role in the radiative balance of our planet, act as cloud condensation and ice nuclei, and can have serious implications for health if present in large concentrations. Finally, the Raspberry Pi interface provides a low threshold opportunity for students to take part in hands on coding and instrumentation work. We use these types of boards in the lab and the variety of things they can do - from controlling instrumentation or reading in data to creating a twitter bot or controlling a robotic car - is phenomenal and super fun.”

A Fast-response temperature sensor is included in the portable lab kits.  This sensor will be used to upgrade the Tripodded Portable In Situ Precipitation Station (TriPIPS) deployed at ACRE. This station can be operated remotely by the instructor or by students to record data at specific intervals during weather events. The TriPIPS is a complete surface weather station mounted on a tripod that collects continuous information about temperature, relative humidity, pressure, and wind speed and direction. According to Dawson, "these are all typical measurements that are common to most surface weather stations, but the TriPIPS has an additional specialized instrument, called a disdrometer that measures the number, sizes, and fall speeds of any precipitation particles that fall through its sensing area (i.e. raindrops, snowflakes, hailstones, and so on). Coupled with the other weather information, this instrument yields important information about how precipitation changes its intensity, type, and size distribution (the range of sizes of the particles falling at any given time). Students in EAPS can use data from this instrument for research and class projects and gain hands-on experience with collecting and analyzing meteorological data, along with new insights into precipitation processes."

The TriPIPS was built using funds from a previous Instructional Innovation grant awarded in 2017. In this new instructional equipment grant, the station will be augmented with an additional temperature sensor that responds better to rapid temperature changes than the existing sensor Such rapid temperature changes can happen when strong cold fronts or gust fronts from thunderstorms pass over the station. Among other benefits, by comparing the temperature trends from the original "slow-response" and the new "fast-response" temperature sensors for various weather events, students will gain valuable insight into how measurements depend not only on the actual weather, but also the nature of the sensor making the measurement.

Tanamachi says that the Kestrel handheld weather meters will be used in many of the courses that she teaches including atmospheric observations and measurements (EAPS 22700) and the severe storms field work course (EAPS 59100) that she co-teaches with Dawson.

“Research shows that experiential learning is highly beneficial for students because the level of cognitive engagement (brain activity and memory formation) is higher,” says Tanamachi.  “Think about sports - when you dribble a basketball, it's a very different experience than watching someone do it on television or computing the trajectory of a ball on paper. You feel the weight of the ball, its shape, and its elasticity, and you take all of those variables into account when coordinating your muscles to shoot a basket. Lab-based science is similar - you learn specific skills and concepts through hands-on activity.”

With this grant, hands on lab learning will allow students studying atmospheric make steady small steps toward their giant leap into a career in atmospheric science.

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