By Arla Sutton (Hydro), Berwin Lan (OUT Maine), Olivia Chang (EDGI), and Miriam Rich (Micro Museums)
PInT hosted four subteams this semester, each working on different public interest technology areas and with different stakeholders and partners. We partnered with EDGI, Out Maine, and Micro Museums and led an internal project researching hydroponics. Each of these subteams was entirely student-led and supported by the PInT organizer team.
OUT Maine is a nonprofit organization supporting and building communities for LGBTQ+ youth in Maine. PInT is collaborating with them to build an online game that can teach youth about different identities while creating a sense of community and allowing the player to explore their own identity. We spent the bulk of the fall semester defining the problem and starting to ideate and design our solution. Because our project from OUT Maine was very open ended and widely scoped (“design a game”), we had to first set our own parameters and goals. By collaborating with Aiden, our liaison at OUT Maine, and examining our own individual learning goals, we decided on building a game with the aforementioned features and objectives.
In the last few weeks of the semester, our subteam learned about game design and began to prototype our own game. This included talking with folks who worked in this field, such as Prof. Jordan Tynes at Wellesley College, Zack Davenport (an Olin alumnus at Lobaki, Inc.), and various Olin professors and students with expertise in game development, pedagogy, and other relevant specialties. We also focused on the onboarding stage of existing games and went through tutorials of games like Stardew Valley to pick out elements that made entering the game intuitive to emulate in our game. We concluded the semester by splitting into subteams (coding, art, narrative) during our meeting time to begin putting together a low-fidelity prototype of one scene. Our subteam is continuing into the spring semester, and we plan on building off of what we’ve accomplished in the fall and deliver a finished product to OUT Maine that can help them in their mission to provide a supportive and affirming community for queer youth in Maine.
This semester, the EDGI team worked with the Environmental Data Governance Initiative, or EDGI, which analyzes and advocates for accessibility of environmental data on government websites. We investigated the EPA’s ECHO (Enforcement and Compliance History Online) database, which contains all of the polluting facilities in the United States and is used by regulators, researchers, and the public alike to assess compliance with environmental regulations. Unfortunately, we know that the ECHO database has a significant amount of missing and incorrect data, which makes it difficult to perform meaningful research on the database. Our task was to use data science methods to illustrate ambiguities and gaps in the database, with a special focus on racial disparities.
To get a better sense of what research is being done with ECHO, we read two recently authored environmental justice papers. One key takeaway was that the missing data greatly affects the results of the research—the authors could not research the Clean Air Act or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act because the ECHO data quality was so poor. Our own research confirmed this—we scored each state by how many of its facilities were missing data, and we learned that Olin’s home state, Massachusetts, is missing 82.5% of Clean Water Act data.
We found that several thousand facilities are missing basic information, such as location, registry ID, name, and state. About 340,000 facilities are missing data on the minority composition of the surrounding community, making it impossible to conduct environmental justice research on those facilities. We uncovered some other quirks, too: some facilities have latitudes and longitudes outside of the United States, and many facilities have nonexistent abbreviations in the State Column (almost three thousand have the abbreviation “XF”)! In addition, we found that the missing data was much worse in majority-minority communities for all three acts that we studied.
Finally, we made sure that our findings would be accessible to everyone, not just us! We went through the research with an outside audience to see how it would be interpreted by non-technical readers, and made improvements to the Jupyter notebook with our findings as a result. We added more visualization, more explanations of what each code block did, and cataloged the meaning of each column in the ECHO database.
At the end of the semester, we presented our findings to EDGI. In the coming months, EDGI is planning to incorporate our findings into a blog post on their website.
Micro Museums was a new subteam this semester, and partnered with a nonprofit organization from New York called “Micro.” A micro museum is a shoebox-sized exhibit dedicated to anything that the creator of the exhibit is interested in exploring. Our goal was to create a kit for middle schoolers to make their own micro museums in classrooms. The students needed to be able to change the dimensions of the box, and all of the boxes needed to be able to attach together. We split into two subteams for the semester: one team worked on box design and the other worked on kit materials.
Our box design team decided to utilize the boxes that the kits shipped in for the exhibit, meaning they would be made out of cardboard. To make the box modular, we came up with a design with lines marking where the box can be refolded to make the museum larger or smaller. We also wrapped the box in a cardboard sleeve to provide the students with extra cardboard if needed.
The team working on kit materials used Micro’s original instructions to make our own museum exhibits and kept track of the materials we used to create them. We created a list of possible supplies and bought a few different brands of each material. After testing these materials on our own, we sent micro museum kits to our middle school aged family members and children of faculty members to test. With their feedback, we created a report for Micro detailing our recommendations for kit materials and box structure design.
Hydro, a subteam that formed in the spring of 2021, focused its efforts this semester in two different directions. The first we called “in the weeds,” in which we explored areas of food injustice and sustainability. We asked questions such as “How do we define food justice?” and “How do we distribute the food that we produce?” We split into three groups exploring three specific questions: “Why is it so hard to find Trader Joes’ food sources?” “What are the requirements to have your food labeled as organic, non-gmo, etc?” and “What tricks do brands use to promote their food as healthy and good for the environment?” and presented our findings to the rest of the group.
The second direction we explored this semester was growing plants! In the spring semester the subteam had renovated and started to grow plants in an old hydronics cart from a team years ago, and this semester we were able to harvest kale, basil, lettuce, peas and peppermint grown entirely through hydronics methods. We also worked to design a custom hydroponics green wall for the PARC (the third floor endcap in the academic center), and were able to purchase all the materials so that we’re ready to start assembly in the upcoming spring semester. Our goal is to have an automated green wall that can be used to engage our community through fresh, homegrown food.
We were also fortunate enough to be able to visit Freight Farms in Boston, a company that sells freight containers renovated to grow produce as an automated hydroponics farm. While visiting we learned about various new methods of growing hydroponic produce, ways to make our systems more efficient, and some challenges associated with expanding hydroponic farms.