A robotic irrigator sits in the Manhattan Catholic School garden Wednesday afternoon. The device, created by Tyson Vrbas’ science class, uses a sensor to monitor soil moisture content and automatically dispenses water when it gets below a certain threshold.

A software and technology company honored a Manhattan Catholic Schools science teacher with a national award for a class engineering effort involving robotics and soil moisture.

Tyson Vrbas, a teacher in the school’s Science, Technology, Reading/Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math (STREAM) program, won the Vernier Engineering Award for his class’ work on an automatic watering system for the school garden. Students in Vrbas’ class utilized sensors from the software and technology company to create a watering system attached to a rain barrel.

Vrbas gave students a soil moisture sensor to pair with a Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit, a hands-on educational tool that includes three servo motors, five sensors to control movement and sensory perception, a rechargeable battery and connecting cables. They then used the Lego kit and soil sensor to design a robot that opens a valve once soil moisture reaches its minimum threshold. The robot is programmed to close the valve once the maximum level of moisture in the soil is reached.

Patsy Johnson, coordinator for the school’s STREAM program, said the class placed the entire robotic system inside a waterproof container, connected to the rain barrel, and attached to a soaker hose. The 50-foot hose will be buried in the garden where it can distribute water evenly.

“The Vernier soil moisture sensor will be placed in the ground near the hose to measure the ground moisture,” Johnson said. “The EV3 is connected to a power source, and the program will be constantly running to make sure the soil moisture is at proper levels.”

Johnson said this produces an effective watering system throughout the school garden without wasting water.

“Our students are thinking globally as well with their invention, and how they can assist countries which experience drought,” Johnson said.

Vrbas said this is the first project of this magnitude he and his students have completed.

“Honestly, I didn’t know a ton about those Vernier sensors until Patsy led me to their site,” Vrbas said. “I started looking around and saw a ton of possibilities.”

The project is still in progress, and Johnson said they hope to have the robot in the ground later this spring. Vrbas said more testing and adjustment will be needed as his students figure out the optimal soil moisture content and learn how to properly program the robot to run on its own.

As part of the engineering award, Vrbas will receive $1,000 in cash, $3,000 worth of Vernier products, and $1,500 toward expenses to attend either an upcoming National Science Teachers’ Association conference or an upcoming American Society for Engineering Education conference.

Vrbas said that $3,000 will go a long way toward the next project, and the choices for sensors on the Vernier website are a bit overwhelming.

“We have some ideas for projects involving air quality. … I think we’ll get one for weather so we can monitor stuff with that,” Vrbas said. “A lot of environmental stuff is what we’re leaning toward.”

David Carter, an engineering instructor at Kansas State University, won last year’s engineering award for a class project using wind energy to introduce students from middle school through college to engineering and design concepts.

Vrbas said he has “picked Carter’s brain” a few times for different science-related curriculum ideas and will likely talk with him again for future projects.

Vrbas said his robotics class is small — only five students this semester — which allows students to have more input in a project and provides better preparation for future jobs.

“I think a lot of kids nowadays are driven by technology … but then you get them to think outside the box, it gets them more engaged and makes learning more enjoyable for them,” Vrbas said. “A lot of jobs in the future are going to be technology based, and I tell them a lot of jobs they could get don’t exist at this point, but the background they get now will prepare them more in the future.”