The teams of teenagers who gathered in a large room at the New York Academy of Sciences last week were from all over the world: India, Egypt, Tanzania, Singapore, China, and more. Some were visiting the U.S. for the first time. A few came from closer by, places like Maryland and New York.
They were all there to present their ideas for addressing three major global challenges: water sanitation, disaster preparedness, and food waste.
They had frantically worked together in teams over a two-month sprint to put together their designs. Now they were meeting for the first time, on a paid trip to New York as finalists in the Junior Academy Global STEM Challenge.
“The most interesting was us meeting each other. You actually get to work on a real thing with someone who is thousands of miles away from you–and you actually get to make something that will have a great impact in the world,” says Edita Bytyqi, a 17-year-old from Macedonia who wants to become a chemical engineer.
One of two winning teams, Bytyqi’s group had created a prototype a biodegradable water filter composed of carbon nanotubes and activated carbon derived from coconut shells. They designed it for easy carrying in a backpack, conducted surveys for user testing, and did a cost analysis to make sure it was relatively affordable. ARM, which sponsored one of the challenges–aimed at creating low-cost wearable devices that address water sanitation, was impressed with the results.
“I stayed up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and have a meeting, and they’d stay up until 2 a.m. and have a meeting. It went back and forth,” says Smiti Shah, a 15-year-old from Long Island on the team, which also included Vaidehi Shah from the U.K., Swadhin Nalubola from the U.S., and a team mentor from India. The most challenging part, Bytyqi says, was iterating the design as they encountered challenges.
They learned lessons in collaboration, using Launchpad–project software specifically designed for the needs challenge. “We started to make the schedules for the discussions and how the product is going to be made. And we did everything together online,” says Asha Abbas, 17, from Tanzania. They had to overcome cultural and technological barriers: “Our teammate in China couldn’t use Google . . . and her Internet wasn’t very good. But thankfully we got over that,” says Ryan Bose-Roy, a 14-year-old from the United States.
Abbas and Bose-Roy worked together with Yuanyuan Wei from China and Oussama Amir from Morocco on the second winning team in a challenge sponsored by Pepsi. Their design was a collapsible, biodegradable bottle made from PLA and natural rubber, aimed at slowing oxidation and microbial contamination that promotes faster food spoilage.
The Junior Academy was a launched a few years ago as part of the Global STEM Alliance, a collaboration between the New York Academy of Sciences and 100 government, schools, nonprofit, and corporate partners around the world. The plan is to expand the platform and allow many more to participate in future global challenges aimed at promoting excitement in science, technology, and engineering. But perhaps the most valuable opportunity they get is to work with kids around the world on projects that matter.
“We want to scale this up to hundreds of challenges and thousands of kids,” says NYAS president Ellis Rubinstein.
What’s next for these kids? “We’d like to commercialize our product,” says Oussama Amir, 17, from Morocco. “I also want to be an astrophysicist and mathematician.”
Easy enough. But first they have to cash their $1,000 check, which might be a problem. Some of them don’t have a bank account in their name yet.
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