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West Jordan Journal

Cycle of winning: three years of contest winnings propel STEM program forward

Feb 02, 2022 02:54PM ● By Jet Burnham

Mountain Heights Academy seniors Kate and Zachary Watson work on elements of an irrigation system designed for a national contest by their eighth grade teammates. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Hulse.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

For the third consecutive year, a STEM team from Mountain Heights Academy, a virtual charter school, has been selected as a top 100 team in Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow Contest.

Contest winnings have earned the school $36,500 which has been invested in STEM equipment.

“These materials have greatly supported the expansion of our STEM Program to provide additional hands-on opportunities for our students,” STEM team adviser Andrew Hulse said.

The contest winnings from the 2020 team purchased 3D printers that the 2021 team utilized to print homes for pollinators for their project. This year’s team is also using the 3D printers, Samsung Galaxy tablets and Flip Boards, and contest winnings to develop their project, track and analyze data, purchase materials for testing and print prototypes. With the audio-visual equipment purchased with past winnings, they are creating a video for the next phase of the contest.

STEM team adviser Lora Gibbons said the school doesn't receive the winnings and equipment until after the contest is over so having the resources from past winners gives MHA teams an advantage.

“It's been nice to have those resources now and not have to wait because their project and their experimentation will be done in the next month,” she said. “And if we didn't have this long-standing program, it may be more difficult for them.”

The MHA team was selected from 1,000 applicants to advance in the national competition, which challenges students in grades 6–12 to creatively use science, technology, engineering and math skills to address real-world issues in their communities.

“Empowered and inspired to elicit change, Gen Z students are catalysts for making the world a better place. It is truly an honor to watch students from across the country channel this passion and drive into the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest to address problems in their community head-on,” said Ann Woo, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship at Samsung Electronics America.

MHA’s success is also partly due to teachers and STEM club advisers identifying students who are interested in competitions and helping connect them to other students with similar interests to form successful teams.

This year’s team of three eighth graders—Sophia Moore, Mara Lloyd and Emma Chischillie—live in agricultural areas of Tremonton, Providence and Vernal and have similar interests in agricultural water usage and conservation. The problem they identified was based on an irrigation malfunction that occurred in Sophia’s neighborhood.

“My neighbor's irrigation water went into our other neighbor's yard, and it was just everywhere,” she said. “So if they had alarm systems, like to maybe turn it off, I think that'd be helpful to not waste their water.”

The team is researching solutions that will directly reduce water waste in irrigation systems and indoor water usage which will save consumers money and result in a more sustainable Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

They tested various products to monitor water usage, detect problems and improve irrigation system efficiency. With support from advisers, teachers and parents, the girls learned to design and 3D print custom parts for sensors and to code sensors to send data to a monitoring app.

They have also reached out to experts in the field, some of which have been provided by Samsung for teams at this level of the contest.

The team has also consulted with students who were part of previous winning teams, such as Kate Watson, a senior, who was a member of MHA’s 2020 winning team. She is mentoring this year’s team and helping them to stay on top of deadlines. The team must submit a video by mid-February for the next phase of the contest.

Watson said this year’s team works very well together, which she said is imperative for developing a successful project. In 2019, she was part of a team that was so dysfunctional, they never completed their project. She applied what she learned the next year and her team becaue the first in MHA’s winning tradition.

Watson has participated in 17 STEM competitions through MHA, earning over $6,000 in scholarships. She said these experiences have had “an enormous effect” on her and her education.

“Ever since I started doing STEM, I've gotten more and more into it every single year and it's opened my eyes to new fields,” she said. Through a competition project, she was introduced to microbiology, a field she plans to explore in college next year.

Her brother, Zachary Watson, who is also lending a hand to this year’s team, said STEM competitions through MHA give him an outlet and purpose for developing and applying his skills.

“I've always been interested in technology, and the STEM team really was just a way for me to use that for a purpose,” he said. “It makes me more motivated to learn more about technology because when you're doing it for a good cause, it motivates you further instead of just to do it. So I always look for these kind of opportunities to develop my skills.”

STEM club members are encouraged to participate in competitions, but Hulse said this year’s students, like those on previous winning teams, are more focused on exploring personal interests than on winning.

“The students are very motivated by the idea and by water conservation as a whole as opposed to just strictly by how they can fit it into this competition,” Hulse said.

Still, the team hopes to be the first MHA team to advance to the next level of the Samsung contest, in which seven teams will receive $50,000 and three teams will receive $100,000 in classroom technology and supplies.