The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.
Teens in Taranaki have been investigating how a wifi network is created and how to set up one that is as good as – and sometimes better than – those installed by professionals.
Year 12 and 13 students at New Plymouth Girls’ High School and New Plymouth Boys’ High School have been learning the science and technology behind what makes a good wifi network, and how to avoid ‘blind spots’ where signal is poor or non-existent.
The teens have been placing wifi hotspots in various locations around a wifi-free building at the boys’ school and then going through the building with their laptops, using special software to check both the signal strength and reach in different rooms.
The software measures the strength in dBm (decibel below 1 milliwatt), which ranges from -30 dBm, which is the maximum achievable but rare, to -90 dBm, which is so bad it is unusable. The students decided that their lowest level they’d accept as ‘ok’ quality was -67 dBm.
"I thought it was really interesting finding out where to put the routers in the hostel part of the school to get the best possible coverage," says 16-year-old Anahita.
Petra, 17, says that if there was one thing she would change about the school’s wifi coverage, she would put the routers in places where using the internet is most important.
"For example, the study areas might not have good wifi but the dorm does and, if you can't get good signal for the whole area, I think it’s better to have the good wifi in the study areas where students need it.”
The project, co-run by Massey University and PrimoWireless with support from Internet NZ, is the brainchild of Massey’s Faraz Hasan and Fakhrul Alam, who teach Communication Engineering and Networks.
The purpose of the project is to encourage young people to boost New Zealand’s wifi capability, since there are not many places in the country with strong wifi – especially in parts of rural regions like Taranaki – while giving them a taste of being the next generation of technological innovators.
In fact, Matthew Harrison, founder of PrimoWireless, was once in the students’ shoes
“I started out just playing with wifi back in 2006 because I wanted to play games with my friends,” he says. “Then I started connecting my neighbours' houses up. Then so many people wanted the same thing that I was able to quit my job and move to this as a full-time business.”
The students also explored behind the scenes at PrimoWireless’s headquarters, investigated what happens to signal strength by using a test antenna, and visited an Access Point tower on a remote farm.
"I liked learning about how the wifi worked,” says Shayenne, 17. “Not just the history of what wifi is, but also what we’ve learnt about how Access Points connect the building's wifi routers to the World Wide Web. I want to do software development, so this helps me to understand how my coding can work with the internet.”
Gavin, 16, adds, "I wanted to understand why we have really bad wifi at my house. I also thought that if you're going to complain to an internet company about bad wifi, it's good to know what you're talking about!"
The students have not only learnt lots about how the internet works, they’ve also developed what could be a life-long passion for the topic.
Kelly Ellis at PrimoWireless says that two of the students have already expressed an interest in working for the company.
“We really love their enthusiasm and the fact they took the initiative to contact us!” she says.
Photo credit (first and second photos): Kelly Ellis/PrimoWireless.