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STEM Design Challenge Students Create Autonomous Solutions to Monitor Water Quality, Environment

Students from high schools in Salinas, Monterey and Pacific Grove were honored by NPS for their autonomous environmental monitoring solutions in the third annual Rapid Innovation Design Challenge. A total of 38 students representing nine teams from Monterey County schools participated in the competition. (Photo by MC2 Andrew Langholf)

Students from high schools in Salinas, Monterey and Pacific Grove were honored by NPS for their autonomous environmental monitoring solutions in the third annual Rapid Innovation Design Challenge. A total of 38 students representing nine teams from Monterey County schools participated in the competition. (Photo by MC2 Andrew Langholf)

For the third year in a row, science students and teachers from Monterey County high schools came together to brainstorm local solutions to real-world issues during the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Rapid Innovation Design Challenge.

A total of 38 students representing nine teams from Monterey, Pacific Grove and Salinas participated in the 2024 Design Challenge, focusing their efforts on the use of autonomous platforms to monitor water quality, oceans, and the environment. On May 14, these student-faculty teams were honored by NPS during a ceremony at the Moss Landing Marine Labs.

Senior leaders from NPS joined representatives from Design Challenge collaborators and partners in recognizing the winning student-faculty teams, representing Salinas’ Alisal High School, Pacific Grove High School and Monterey’s Santa Catalina School. The teams were competing for a chance to win prizes up to $2,000, sponsored by the Naval Postgraduate School Foundation.

“We started three years ago with a program to try and encourage hands-on STEM learning through an iterative process whereby you guys are allowed to try things that don't have a solution to them,” said Dr. Mara Orescanin, director of NPS’ Consortium for Unmanned Systems Education and Research (CRUSER) and one of the organizers of the Design Challenge. “So you had to dabble with a real-world problem – you have to think outside the box, you have to learn how to fail and how to learn from that failure to iterate on the next design. And this is what real scientists and engineers do.”

Retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, President of NPS, joined Dr. Alan Van Nevel, NPS Associate Provost for Research, and NPS Foundation Vice President Todd Lyons in presenting student team members with letters of recognition for their efforts.

Following the ceremony, teachers and students had an opportunity to tour the historic fishing vessel Western Flyer, made famous by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts during their 1940 voyage to the Gulf of California, and which now has new life as a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and research platform run by the Western Flyer Foundation.

“You students give me a good feeling, a lot of hope about the future, because you have shown that you're willing to take a problem that you don't know anything about, look at it, fail – hopefully, not too many times – and then try new ideas, keep an open mind, and come up with a solution,” said Van Nevel. “And those qualities will serve you well for a long time to come.”

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro released the 2024 Naval Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy, which called for a greater focus on STEM education and outreach opportunities across the nation.

The Rapid Innovation Design Challenge, led by Orescanin and Dr. David Ortiz-Suslow, aligns with this new strategy and other commitments by NPS and the Department of the Navy to increase educational equity in STEM – as well as to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and more.

“NPS is proud to support the STEM Rapid Innovation Design Challenge with the Office of Naval Research to invest in the next generation of innovators and leaders for our Navy and our nation,” said Rondeau. “While the celebratory energy in the award ceremony was great to see, I noticed something else after the event that is the real reward of such efforts. I watched as one of the young high school ladies showed and demonstrated her model to a group of students as they crowded around her and asked questions. She was beaming with pride, and that is the payoff of this work – building the desire for discovery engendered in inquiring minds.”

This year’s Design Challenge, which ran from Feb. 1 to April 16, was developed in collaboration with industry and technology experts. It featured a focus on autonomous technology and its use in creating two types of platforms – one for making ocean and atmospheric measurement during storm events, the other for monitoring coastal water quality. According to Orescanin, these elements were inspired by the flooding of watersheds throughout Monterey County last winter, as well as a desire to understand extreme weather events of all types.

The “CRUSER Grand Championship,” emblematic of the competition’s top honor, and the $2,000 grand prize were presented to a team from Pacific Grove High for its efforts to understand the Design Challenge’s iterative process, identify an area to be improved in data collection, and create a solid prototype for how to implement their solution with an autonomous platform.

Their result was the “StormChaser Sentry,” which tackled the challenge of atmospheric and ocean measurement in extreme weather events. Teacher Sally Richmond’s team took a platform that was designed for wave monitoring and augmented it with sensors for determining location, wind speed, air temperature and humidity, barometric pressure, and wave period and height.

In addition to the grand prize, Pacific Grove High took home honors in one of the three runner-up categories, each of which awarded a $500 prize. The school’s second winning entry came courtesy of student Antony Gabrik, who captured the “Persuasive Pitch” award for his video presentation on improving data collection to make a connection between actions on land and their biological and environmental impacts offshore. 

“This is our third year competing – we've had a great time each year, and we've managed to win an award each time,” said Richmond. “We look forward to doing it again next year.”
Another runner-up category, “Best Storm Tracker Solution,” went to Santa Catalina School’s “Team Wanandi,” which generated the most unique solution for gathering data during storms. The team created an autonomous open-water platform whose spherical design allowed for more stability and durability in varying wave and storm states.
The final runner-up category, “Best Water Quality Monitoring Solution,” was won by Alisal High and its “Small Organic Remeasuring Tool,” or SORT, for representing the most unique solution for monitoring water quality. In addition to using a colorimeter that can be programmed for multiple water quality measurements such as pH, ammonia or chloride levels, SORT has a compartment for a whiteleg shrimp, which can serve as an indicator of high pesticide levels in the water.

“You have played a critical role in designing real potential solutions for these problems,” Orescanin said. “These are actual problems scientists face – and we have the scientists with us today who study these problems at NPS. It is great to see such creative, innovative thinking in our high schools. We're here to recognize that – that all of you are amazing by contributing to this process, and hope that you enjoyed yourself along the way.”

The Rapid Innovation Design Challenge program is designed to build excitement about STEM, mitigate barriers to experiential learning opportunities for all students, introduce students to emerging technologies, and strengthen community capacity to offer impactful education opportunities. It includes scaffolded curricula that match critical skills for higher education and a modern workforce to school standards. 

Each challenge integrates critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving and written communication skills as teams explore applications of science, technology, engineering and math to create meaningful solutions with global impact. 

“The Rapid Innovation Design Challenge is an opportunity for the Naval Postgraduate School to share its unique expertise in STEM with the local community,” Lyons said. “The Naval Postgraduate School Foundation & Alumni Association is dedicated to supporting NPS and has supported the Design Challenge since its inception. We look forward to supporting future Rapid Innovation Design Challenges and building even closer connections between NPS and the local community.”

NPS is already planning for the 2025 Rapid Innovation Design Challenge, with launch scheduled for the fall of 2024. As part of a growing initiative at NPS to foster graduate student mentorship in the community, the upcoming iteration of the Design Challenge will include the opportunity for pairing participating classes with NPS students as mentors and to provide insight into career pathways in STEM. More information about the Design Challenge program is available at all the 2024 NPS Rapid Innovation Design Challenge Winners.

The collaboration conducted under the auspices of the Rapid Innovation Design Challenge does not constitute endorsement of non-federal organizations or their products and services by the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.

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