North Carroll seniors take science into their own hands

HAMPSTEAD — Four North Carroll High School seniors watched on Thursday as a computer, hooked up to a fish tank, retrieved data about the temperature, oxygen levels and other aspects of the tank's water quality, a project they have spent thousands of hours refining over the course of this year.

The device, which monitors whether water quality is healthy for aquatic life, consists of a Raspberry Pi, a basic microcomputer, connected by a series of wires to a temperature sensor and a dissolved oxygen sensor. The temperature sensor is a simple, single-wire sensor, which has hot, cold and power sensors. A computer program called Python reads information from the sensors, interprets the information and sends it to their website,, said Ricky Catron, 18, one of three students who worked directly on developing the project.


It all began when Catron and Timothy Bowersox, 17, were looking for ways to monitor the fish tanks in their science research class at school. They decided to build their own system to do so.

"We accidentally met at [a shopping center] … and they said 'Hey, Ms. McNett! We've got this idea,' " said Hannah McNett, their science teacher. "I told them 'just go for it' and they did — they pretty much spearheaded everything."

Catron, who completed the computer science program at Carroll County Career and Technology Center, used his computer programming skills, combining them with Bowersox's knowledge of science and engineering to begin the Carroll County Pi Project. They later recruited classmate Emily Keith, 18, who completed the biomedical program at the Carroll tech center, to handle data analysis for the project.

"This is one of these cases where they took Science Research I — they learned all these skills and they applied them," McNett said.

All three are in McNett's science research class this year.

Science Research, a capstone course, is the only program of its kind in Maryland, founded about 20 years ago. "It takes physics, chemistry, biology — content areas that have been covered and it allows kids to apply that knowledge in a research-based platform," said Jim Peters, supervisor of science for Carroll County Public Schools.

The main focus of the class is raising aquatic animals such as fish, turtles, plants and frogs in a series of tanks throughout the classroom. "It's a really good class to focus on the different sciences you can get into," said Jonathan Bean, 18, the fourth team member, who served as manager of the group by making sure that the team was on track to meet their goals.

They presented their project last summer to Maryland Sea Grant, an organization that is part of the University System of Maryland and supports Carroll's Science Research program. The organization were so impressed that they provided the students with a $1,000 grant to pursue the project.

"It started over the summer when we got the grant," Keith said.

They began setting up the project until school began, doing tests to make sure their device worked, at which point they began collecting the data.

"It's definitely new — it's something we didn't have much experience with, so getting used to it was the first thing for us," Keith said.

When they began school in the fall, they converted an empty closet into a lab, in the corner of McNett's science research classroom, where they spend time before school, after school and during lunch perfecting the project.

"We decided to use the Raspberry Pi because I had stumbled across it online and it seemed like a really useful device and it was programmed in Python — a language that I already knew," Catron said. "It was a really good starting place for us."

Now that they have created the device, the students are looking at expanding their sights from an aquarium prototype to a pond. They are working with representatives from Northrop Grumman to build a waterproof case for the computer, Bowersox said.


"Our batteries last two to three hours, so we can collect data every second for two to three hours at a time," Bowersox said.

The data they collect can be used by scientists to monitor local waterways, said Bean.

If the group turned this into a business, they would be selling the service of monitoring water quality — not selling a product, Bowersox said.

McNett said the project incorporates different aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, education. "This is the ultimate crucible of STEM," she said.

The four students say they want the project to live on at North Carroll after they graduate. McNett said the technology will likely be used by the other high schools as well.

"We're not only trying to expand within our school but throughout the county, so it becomes a countywide project, not just a North Carroll-centric project," Bean said.

McNett said she was surprised that the students are not doing the project for personal gain.

"They don't want any money from this — they want their information to be publicly open so that anybody can take this programming or their data analysis or their funding sources," McNett said. "I thought that was very selfless of them."