Saxons Win $20,000 and Advance in Samsung Contest
Julie Chen ‘20, Ned Harlan ‘20 and Mason Obery ‘20 were selected as the Oregon state winners in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest for their project using a drone to detect harmful algae blooms in Salem’s Detroit Lake water supply. South will receive $20,000 in technology from the competition, with potentially more to come, as they advance to the national round.
Chen, Harlan and Obery were sent a video kit from Samsung for the next phase of the competition. By Feb. 15 the team must submit a video of their prototype, and by mid to late March they will find out whether they have been selected as one of the top ten national finalists.
Their idea was inspired by last summer’s toxic algae in Detroit Lake. The algae bloom affected most residents of Salem and the surrounding areas, leaving them without safe water for weeks. Toxic algae flourishes in warmer weather. As the global temperature increases, the number of algae blooms will also rise.This prompted Chen, Harlan, and Obery to look for ways to identify them before there are large blooms in the water.
“We thought that it would be an excellent idea to apply our knowledge of computer science into something that can benefit our community,” Obery said.
The group is programming the drone using complex algorithms. The drone will analyze images of the lake and differentiate between clean water and water with algae. The drone’s image recognition software is called a convolutional neural network. It finds algae by analyzing each image pixel by pixel.
“We were looking for a system that was really efficient at covering a large area in a short amount of time and that could get adequate images easily,” Harlan said. “We’ve come into lots of problems throughout the project, like different coding on different machines, which can’t actually run what we’re trying to do, or algorithms that we’re not familiar with, because we’re not really as advanced at computer science as we should be to be working on these algorithms.”
The team is advised by Warren Trotter, a math teacher at South, who helps guide the project and work through stumbling blocks in the process.
“They understand a lot of the technology that’s out there to use and they’re fairly advanced in science and math, so they can speak this language that they’re getting themselves into,” Trotter said, of the group’s strengths. “They work hard, they work together, they’re not afraid to ask questions, they’re not afraid to work with people outside of the school, and I think an openness to challenges.”
The group is in contact with Oregon State University and the city of Salem to obtain pictures of algae blooms and data to train the drone to identify algae on the surface of a lake. As their project expands to the national level, the group has gained recognition across both Salem and Oregon. Chen, Harlan and Obery were interviewed by Statesman Journal and the local Fox TV station in January. On Jan. 21 the group was awarded a flag which had been flown over the U.S. capitol by Senator Jeff Merkley.
“It was very exciting for South to get this honor,” Chen said. “[Senator Merkley] was very happy with the strides in education we are working towards.”
The $20,000 won by the group so far will likely go towards technology such as smartboards and new chromebooks for South. The science labs may also get new equipment. As Chen, Harlan, and Obery continue in the national competition there is a potential of earning up to $100,000 for South.