A new computer model of tree growth could help combat climate change–and it was developed by a pair of high school students.
Eli Echt-Wilson and Albert Zuo, high school seniors from Albuquerque, New Mexico, were chosen as two of the $100,000 grand prize winners in the annual Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. The other winner, 18-year-old Peter Tian of Columbus, Ohio, came up with a pattern avoidance system that could have applications in circuit design and robot motion planning (i.e. helping robots find the shortest path between two points without crashing into obstacles).
“When this project started, we had no idea what it would turn into,” says Echt-Wilson. “It started as a computer-type project, because trees are interesting to model from that perspective. Albert joined to help make it biologically accurate.”
The model that the two students developed consists of a virtual tree that grows based on small decisions made by the user. The amount of light available from the sun and the tree canopy is used to calculate how much carbon that the tree generates during growth. “We have a model we use to apportion that carbon to different parts of the tree. That basic model gives rise to a tree,” says Echt-Wilson. The model was verified by comparing it to the basic rules that hold true for all trees–the ratio of the tree mass compared to the waist mass, for example.
“It’s very close to real trees,” says Echt-Wilson. “Our trees do things that most trees do, like growing into the light.”
Ultimately, the model could be used to cut down on CO2 emissions by maximizing the efficiency of tree plantations–a goal previously achieved through planting experiments, which take a long time. The model might also optimize the growth of tree-based foods, like apples and pears.