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Students Team Up to Solve Global STEM Alliance Challenges

Teams, made up of 28 student from 11 countries, win international challenges in Space Exploration, Smart Technology for Home and Health, Cybersecurity, Sustainable Transportation, and the battle against COVID-19.

Published August 12, 2020

By Roger Torda

Students Team Up to Solve Global STEM Alliance Challenges

Five international teams made up of 28 students from 11 countries have demonstrated they can solve challenges that vex the most experienced scientists and engineers. The students are among more than a thousand that competed in 2020 Challenges run by the New York Academy of Sciences’ Global STEM Alliance. The teams collaborated across borders to develop solutions related to the coronavirus pandemic, routine healthcare monitoring, cybersecurity, lunar exploration, and sustainable transportation.

The Combating COVID-19 Challenge

“I didn’t want to stand by and passively wait for the pandemic to be over,” said Young Chen, explaining why he assembled a team to enter the Combating COVID-19 Challenge. “It was a combination of curiosity, risk-taking, and desire to help my community.” Chen, from Ashburn, Virginia, four other students from the United States, and another from New Delhi, India, won first place among 200 entries in the global competition. Their winning project, called GOvid-19, was a chatbot to provide users with information about government responses, emergency resources, and statistics on COVID-19, and ways they can help fight the pandemic.

Students Team Up to Solve Global STEM Alliance Challenges

The Academy’s goal with the competitions is to help students develop capabilities necessary for effective work and leadership in STEM fields. “Providing opportunities for students to build 21st-century skills like problem solving, collaboration and communication are core goals of our challenge programs,” said Hank Nourse, Senior Vice President & Chief Learning Officer for the Academy, in announcing the winners of the Challenges. This year, several of the Challenges were especially valuable as non-classroom projects for students whose schools had closed because of COVID-19. “Several of these teams completed their work during shutdowns due to the pandemic,” Nourse explained. “We are happy to know that our digital tools allowed students to continue working and learning without interruption.”

The Intelligent Homes & Health Challenge

Zoe Piccirillo, leader for the team that won the Intelligent Homes & Health Challenge, described some of what she learned: “I have become a more open-minded, collaborative and creative individual from working with the motivated and bright members of our team… My team members also helped make our final solution more inclusive. The diversity of the group provided new perspectives regarding what values and concerns are prevalent across the world.”  Zoe’s Health Sync team designed a secure, in-home health monitoring system connecting patients, doctors, and pharmacists. Zoe, from New York City, worked with another student from the United States, two from Sweden, and one each from the Philippines and Australia.

After assembling their teams, the students use the Academy’s Launchpad platform to connect with a volunteer mentor and then to reach out to other experts as they conduct research. “Mentors are often early career scientists, from academia and industry, who volunteer their time to help guide the students with their projects,” explained Kaari Casey, GSA program manager.

Students Team Up to Solve Global STEM Alliance Challenges

“I'm incredibly proud of my teams,” said Jessica Black, the mentor for Health Sync and a veteran of nine previous Challenges. “Often, the topics that are presented for these challenges are varied and out of the scope of what most students are studying in school,” Black continued. “They have to integrate their knowledge base with newly acquired information that must be obtained through research. It's a new process for many of them. To see the resolutions and presentations they formulate by the end of the challenge is incredible.” Black is a fellow in pediatric oncology at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. “As a female in STEM I feel it's really important to act as a role model not just for my female students, but for all of my students,” she added. The Intelligent Homes and Health Challenge was sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, AstraZeneca, and Chalmers University of Technology.

The Cybersecurity in the Age of IoT Challenge

A team calling itself Cybercastle won the Cybersecurity in the Age of IoT Challenge, with a system that uses blockchain technology to encrypt medical records. Team lead Rasmus Häggkvist, from Norrbotten, Sweden, described his criteria for forming a team using Launchpad, saying he “was looking for kind, organized, diligent, and prudent perfectionists.” He found them in all corners of the world, including India, Morocco, Canada and the Philippines. The Cybersecurity Challenge was sponsored by the S&P Global Foundation, with 25 employees from S&P Global serving as mentors to student teams.

The Space Challenge

The LunarX team won the Space Challenge for its plan to colonize the Moon, including designs for shelters, sustainable food and water systems, and artificial intelligence tools for energy and mobile transport. Sachee Kachchakaduge, the team’s leader from Vancouver, Canada, pointed to the importance of using digital communications in a global project: “We used asynchronous collaboration to work on our own time. Distance and time zones did not prove to be issues, and we were able to work as if we were school friends or classmates.” Sachee also pointed to opportunities to expand skills in sometimes unexpected ways: “At the surface, challenges seem like they only teach you about the topic at hand. However, in reality, you learn many other things. The team provides a safe space for everyone to try new software, and to learn from others and to test out your ideas.”  Sachee’s teammates were from the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Moldova, India, and the United States.

Students Team Up to Solve Global STEM Alliance Challenges

LunarX team mentor Garret Schneider, a retired aeronautical and astronautical engineer who worked in the Air Force and in industry, said the team worked hard to avoid becoming overwhelmed: “I think their biggest obstacles were digesting all the information and possibilities, and also deciding where to focus their energies…. [This] contributed to their success, as well as their dedication to tie all the elements of their solution together in a thorough, coherent manner.” Garret, who has volunteered with the Academy for close to 20 years, said he benefits as well as the students: “I have a renewed respect for the intelligence and capability and spirit of our youth – I feel pride to have been associated with them.”

The Chain of Transportation Challenge

A team calling itself LiFe won the Sustainable Chain of Transportation Challenge. The team designed a battery, a vehicle and an app to match specific transportation needs with the most efficient transportation solutions. Team member Abby Liang, from Troy, Michigan, said: “My new knowledge about the scientific research and design process, as well as both technical and creative skills from coding to policy frameworks to project management, will stay with me as I continue in my studies… I am so proud of our final comprehensive design." Members of the team were from Mexico, New Zealand, Egypt and the United States. The Sustainable Chain of Transportation Challenge was sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Volvo Group.

Winning teams will receive a trip to New York City for next year’s annual GSA Summit, as this year’s Summit was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In lieu of the in-person event this year, a virtual summit was held last month. Nicholas B. Dirks, the Academy’s President and CEO, addressed almost a thousand students and mentors, with a message about the importance of cross-discipline curiosity.  Laura Helmuth, Editor-In-Chief of Scientific American, delivered a keynote address, describing career pathways to science journalism and explaining the importance of good communication in the practice of science.

One of S&P Global’s 25 Challenge mentors echoed the belief that the exchange of ideas is a two-way process. “I wanted the chance… [to] get some exposure to what the next generation thinks about the problems the world is facing,” said Ryan Duve, a senior data scientist. Ryan worked with several teams and mentored a team called Symblot, which competed in the Cybersecurity Challenge. “I think the most important part of mentoring is just being a positive example of what you can be when you grow up,” he continued. “Too many young people only hear about different professions in articles and never really get a chance to do Q&A with a practitioner, which is a role I thought I could help fill.”


Winning Teams for the 2020 Global STEM Alliance Challenges

Combatting COVID-19: Abhay Sheshadri, Monroe Township, NJ, US; Anshul Mahajan, New Delhi, India; Regan Razon, Morrisville, NC, US; Tanush Swaminathan, Monroe Township, NJ, US; Young Chen, Asburn, VA, US.

Cybersecurity in the Age of IoT: Rasmus Häggkvist, Norbotten, Sweden; Sneha Pullanoor, Mumbai, India; Ouahib Timoulali, Kenitra, Morocco; Subaita Rahman, Toronto, Canada; Ma. Rizza Cerilles, Cavite, Philippines; Max Kenning, Stockholm, Sweden.

Space: Sachee Kachchakaduge, Vancouver, Canada; Sreenidhi Vijayaraghavan, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Andreea Bujor, Ungheni, Republic of Moldova; Abhinav Agarwal, Jaipur, India; Arnav Hazra, San Francisco, CA, US; Naveen HV, Mysore, India.

Intelligent Homes & Health: Sara Rydell, Stockholm, Sweden; Jana Montanez, Parañaque City, Philippines; Ansh Gadodia, Princeton Junction, NJ, US; Sophia Li, Melbourne, Australia; Alice Forslund,  Göteborg, Sweden; Zoe Piccirillo, New York, NY, US.

Sustainable Chain of Transportation: Cynthia Ramirez Meneses, Texcoco, Mexico; Izabela Zmirska, St. Augustine, FL, US; Evie Rose Grace, Dunedin, New Zealand; Ishita Bhimavarapu, Princeton, NJ, US; Abby Liang, Troy, MI, US.