WeatherCubes: Thinking Globally, Measuring Locally

Students pose with their WeatherCubes
Students pose with their WeatherCubes. (Photo: Stephen Fong, Ph.D.)

By Patricia Cason
VCU Division of Community Engagement

The conversation about climate change continues to heat up but it’s hard to translate global changes to something that’s relevant on a local level. The latest collaboration between VCU’s College of Engineering and the Science Museum of Virginia seeks to rectify that, building on a series of studies that focus on monitoring the environment right here in Richmond. Best of all, with the new WeatherCubes service-learning project, students get hands-on experience in life science engineering with immediate real-world benefits.

WeatherCubes are self-contained solar-powered cubes that house sensors to measure temperature, humidity, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Stephen Fong, Ph.D., vice chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, spearheaded a project to place 10 WeatherCubes around Richmond to measure air quality at specific locations. Weather services often measure air quality from a central location, but since these are often far away from people, Fong said air quality on a weather report is “not a good indication of the air you’re actually breathing.” Fong wants to measure air quality on an individual basis to track trends citywide. This process would allow him to track exposure to certain pollutants by neighborhood and determine which neighborhoods have the highest rates of pollution.

This project is only the latest in a series of collaborations between Fong and Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D., the climate and earth science specialist at the Science Museum of Virginia. Fong first attracted Hoffman’s attention with his Green Walls service-learning class, where students covered the side of VCU’s Office of Sustainability/Ram Bikes building with plants. Vertical gardens make sustainability practical in a city by incorporating green spaces into urban environments.

During the spring of 2017, Hoffman was interested in studying the urban heat island effect, which he defines as the way “human structures and landscapes absorb more of the sun’s energy and re-emit it as heat.” Hoffman realized that if urban heat islands were measured, practices like Fong’s vertical gardens could be installed to combat heat islands’ effects. Fong agreed to be part of the study, and after completing the project in the summer of 2017, found that temperatures vary as much as 16 degrees every day at different locations in the city of Richmond. Hoffman and Fong shared their data with Richmond’s Office of Sustainability. More information about the results of Hoffman and Fong’s heat islands study can be found  on the Science Museum of Virginia’s website.

The success of Hoffman and Fong’s heat islands study led to their interest in WeatherCubes. However, Fong said, “putting together the instrumentation of these is a lot more involved than the heat islands,” and because of this, the study is taking more time and money to complete. Fong piloted assembling and testing prototypes of the WeatherCubes during the spring 2018 semester with an interdisciplinary class of biology and engineering students, where they identified unanticipated hardware and software issues. Fong stresses the importance of a sturdy outer layer to protect internal sensors, as he said the WeatherCubes “could reside in the city on an ongoing basis almost indefinitely, as long as there’s no problem with them.”

This semester, Fong and Hoffman intend to buy the components to build and test an additional 10 WeatherCubes if they receive VCU’s Service-Learning Partnership Grant. Students will again assist in the construction and testing of WeatherCubes.

Once the WeatherCubes are constructed, Hoffman and Fong hope to provide the city of Richmond with more individualized air quality reports to help influence planning decisions. Hoffman said, “Science centers want to become more involved in interpreting the natural world locally.” Fong points to the importance of making global changes in environment relevant and understandable. “There’s nuance to what you experience on a global level versus a local level, and a lot of this was trying to make those connections,” he said.