Student projects may save lives, win prizesMar 09, 2023 10:19AM ● By Jet Burnham
Mountain Heights Academy Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest team members use equipment won by previous years’ contest teams. (Photo courtesy of Lora Gibbons.)
While hiking in Escalante National Forest, teenagers Natalie Rowe, Kimberly Watson, Malachi Chaya and their church group discovered a hiker who had been lost in the wilderness for four days.
“I think he just wandered off the trail because the trail wasn't marked,” Natalie said.
The three teenagers are sixth and seventh-graders at Mountain Heights Academy, an online charter school. When they formed a team to enter the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest, they decided their project would address outdoor recreation safety because of their experience.
The Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest challenges students to use science, technology, engineering and math to solve a problem in their community.
Through research, the students discovered that Search and Rescue teams have seen a dramatic increase in requests for help in outdoor recreation areas. Just last year, there were 1,043 search and rescue incidents within Utah’s five national parks.
“There has been a huge increase in hikers since the pandemic, people wanting to go outside, and so there's a lot more people out hiking that aren’t very experienced,” Kimberly said.
For their project, the teens are developing transmitting and receiving devices with long range wave capabilities that could be used for communication along hiking trails without reliable cell service.
“We could make stations every mile along the way, so if you need help, you can press the button,” Natalie said.
Mountain Heights Academy teachers encourage students to compete in contests because they provide authentic, immersive and engaging learning experiences inspired by students’ interests. The school has developed a culture of participation in contests. All three team members have older siblings who’ve participated in the contest previously. Natalie’s older sister Mariella is a mentor for the team this year.
“The school is a network of ideas,” science teacher Lora Gibbons said. “It's something we try to build on each year. So an idea may start to surface and it may start to be developed by students in the next year or two—that's the beauty of having that kind of flow each year. That's really what gives our program that depth to explore ideas that maybe we would never come up with if it was just a couple of them.”
MHA teams have been selected as top 300 Samsung finalists for several years. This year, seven Utah schools made the top 300 and received a $2,500 prize package. Jordan District’s Jordan Academy for Technology team was also one of the finalists.
The JATC team’s contest project is a similar idea to MHA’s team. Their transmitting device will automate school attendance and track students’ location in case of an emergency. The current application is for school-use, but students said its application could be expanded to retirement homes and hospitals.
“Pretty much all the skills for this project came from the JATC,” Jaxon Smith said, a senior at Mountain Ridge High School.
Many JATC class assignments are project-based and students are encouraged to develop projects for competitions.
“I know that learning accelerates when it's a project,” Web Development Instructor Melissa Mansouri Smith said. “They'll learn far more than if I was just teaching. It always feels like it's where the real learning really begins because they just accelerate so much faster without some of the constraints when the project is what the focus is, instead of for certain assignments.”
The students also gain real-world experience by consulting with experts about their project.
“We met with the safety manager and were confident with our ideas going in,” Smith said. “He gave us a list of new ideas and important things to focus on. It helped us make important changes to our focus which required us to rewrite and come up with a new design. It was good input we didn't know we needed.”
Neither team advanced further than Phase 1 in the competition this year, but both will continue to work on their product. The MHA team is using the same product for the eCYBERMISSION virtual STEM competition. The JATC team is interested in continuing to refine their design until they have a final product.
The two schools used their $2,500 prize package to stock their classrooms with new equipment. Mountain Heights Academy reinvests each year’s winnings. The money won by last year’s team paid for arduino kits, sensors, smart home kits, a laser cutter and 3D printer. This year’s team used the kits to learn about transmitting and coding concepts and will be using the 3D printer to create a cover for their device. The equipment is also used for other contest projects and class assignments.
“Next year, we're opening a new class to an elective called the innovation lab,” STEAM Program Coordinator Andrew Hulse said. “It's essentially going to be a makerspace of sorts, where we'll go through some learning opportunities as far as how these things work, but then students will be able to utilize all these fun tools and gizmos and gadgets that we have to create their own projects.”
Other Utah schools selected as top 300 finalists include Wasatch High School Alternative, Olympus Junior, Green Canyon High, West High and Elk Meadows Elementary. West High School was selected to advance in the competition as the Utah finalist.