by Dietrich Ruehlmann, Executive Director

Why. GaiaXus develops and commercializes water quality monitors for environmental STEM educators and citizen scientists. The company was founded on the conviction that the increased public awareness of our environment paired with an engaging STEM education will create a new generation of scientists, engineers, artists, and community leaders who use science to advance environmental protection for all of us.

The Beginning. The company started its journey in 2021 when founder Dietrich Ruehlmann, Ph.D., MBA assembled a team to launch the company. In an NSF-iCorps interview series with educators, scientists, students, and parents, a picture emerged: the technology used by STEM educators to teach environmental issues is either hopelessly inaccurate and non-engaging or so expensive that it’s out of reach for many schools with limited STEM budgets. Educators often struggle to provide a meaningful, engaging experience and learning outcome for their students using antiquated technology. They further noted that standard tools can’t teach data analysis, visualization, and interpretation skills that are vital for college and career development. Outdated tools for a rapidly changing and growing market are unsustainable for a society that prides itself on engineering and scientific achievement.

The Mission. Supported by a circle of educators, engineers, software developers, and business coaches, GaiaXus developed the first concept of a new water quality monitor that puts the environmental context into the foreground, pairs the data with the educators’ teaching goals, and links students on their personal path of discovery with peers and community leaders nationwide. The company raised funds from the US Department of Education to develop and test the concept with schools, nature advocates, environmental educators, and academic scientists. Once the prototype phase is finalized, the company seeks to raise funds, engage commercial partners, and develop and launch its systems nationwide.

What is it?  The GaiaXus water quality monitor is a deceptively simple-looking device, a cylinder roughly the size of a water bottle. It has no switches, buttons, or cables to snag, the monitor is shockproof, waterproof to 10 meters depth, and can sustain any surface water conditions from freshwater to algae patches in the open ocean. Students carry it in their packs, tether it with standard rope, and lower it through the water column. Inside the device, sophisticated sensors and microprocessors detect when the system is submerged and start collecting data according to pre-programmed procedures. The prototypes measure water temperature, salinity, depth (pressure), turbidity, and water transparency. The probe can be dropped into the water for a spot check, dragged behind a slow-moving kayak, or slowly lowered through the water column where it acquired data at pre-set depth intervals. When students recover the probe, it connects automatically to the GaiaXus app and sends its data by standard Bluetooth.

The App. Inside the mobile app, the data is stored, displayed, and put in context with the educator-chosen curriculum. Is 15C too cold or too warm for oysters in the Chesapeake Bay?  Are Horseshoe Crabs affected by high turbidity?  Would a trout tolerate this amount of road salt during a winter storm?  The interaction between the acquired data and the guided curricula sets the GaiaXus system apart from legacy laboratory instruments. The system contextualizes the student’s findings and guides them to look around and see their study location interconnected with the whole ecosystem. The online component of the GaiaXus system starts with the secure cloud from where the data will be shared securely and will all respect student privacy and safety. The system currently sends data to the industry-leading information system ESRI and its ArcGIS platform. Here, data from students’ discoveries are displayed on interactive maps and can be contextualized with the educators’ curricula.

Yes, we can. GaiaXus remains an education technology company, deeply rooted in the belief that we can improve the world by raising scientific literacy through intelligent observation and analysis of our environment.