Five Las Vegas-area students are winners of this year’s NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge.
The students won the competition’s “Mission 2” challenge, open to third- through 12th-graders. There were three divisions: elementary, middle and high school. They were recognized in June during an awards ceremony at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where they also met NASA scientists and toured facilities.
Students were asked to “redesign a NASA technology and use it to solve a societal problem,” NASA said in a May announcement.
Henderson 11-year-old Samuel Kyong created “The Green Balance,” which uses waste produced by fish to fertilize plants. The project focuses on using “hydroponics as a filter for environmental volatile organic compounds,” according to NASA.
A four-person team — including Mia Lorenzo, Sarah Kim and Mirai Molde — took top honors in the high school category. A fourth team member declined to be named.
Their project is “Clean Dine Dishes,” which are dishes that clean themselves.
Mia is going into 12th grade at Clark High School in Las Vegas, Sarah is going into 11th grade at West Career & Technical Academy in Las Vegas and Mirai is going into 11th grade at Coronado High School in Henderson.
This year’s research challenge was the first open to students from the United Kingdom, in addition to the United States and Canada, research challenge program manager for Goddard Space Flight Center Erin Majerowicz wrote in a statement. She wasn’t available for a phone interview.
More than 2,400 students registered for the challenge. Competitors created Adobe Spark pages to explain their ideas through text, photo and video. A NASA panel judged the entries.
The competition began in 2010 for third- through eighth-graders. A high school division was added in 2014.
Here’s a look at the projects:
Taking top honors in this challenge is becoming a Kyong family affair. Samuel’s older brothers, Thomas and Daniel Kyong, were part of a team that won in 2018 in the high school division. Their project dealt with how to extract algal blooms.
Samuel watched his older brothers work on their project and wanted to enter this year’s competition. It wasn’t a school assignment.
“It was just for fun,” he said July 25 at the family’s home in the MacDonald Ranch area of Henderson.
As a fourth-grader at Lamping Elementary School in Henderson, Samuel did a hydroponics project for the school science fair. Last school year, he pursued aquaponics for his fifth-grade science fair project and earned first place in the school competition and third at regionals.
He expanded upon his aquaponics project for the NASA competition.
Many volatile organic compounds in the air can cause bad things to happen with our immune system, Samuel said, adding certain plants in aquaponics systems can clean the air.
During the intital phase of Samuel’s aquaponics project — which was set up upstairs at home — “the whole house would smell,” Samuel’s father, Steve Kyong, said, until the plants grew in size and cleaned the water.
“Then, the water was amazingly clear,” Samuel’s mother, Sujin Kyong, said.
Samuel, who’s going into sixth grade at Webb Middle School, said his favorite subjects in school are reading, math and science. As a fifth-grader, he broke Lamping Elementary’s record for Accelerated Reader points.
As a hobby, Samuel enjoys building with Legos.
“I love creating things,” he said.
Mia Lorenzo, Sarah Kim and Mirai Molde
Sarah and Mirai met with the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Aug. 2 in southeast Las Vegas to talk about their project. Mia participated via FaceTime live video; she was on the East Coast for a summer camp.
It’s not a coincidence the local teens knew of the NASA competition.
“We heard about it through last year’s winners, which are also from here in Las Vegas,” Mia said.
This year’s four-member project team formed as a result of overlapping social circles. Their project focused on superhydrophobic dishes, meaning ones that are difficult to get wet. Their concept was to modify the surface of a dish to help food or debris fall off more easily.
It’s also a way to help tackle environmental issues, Mia said, noting it reduces water use and pollution.
“With the technology, it looks very complex and hard to approach,” she said, but the team figured out how to apply it to everyday life.
Three of the team members attended the awards ceremony in June in Maryland. Mia said she enjoyed learning about telescopes and satellites, and hearing other winners’ presentations.
Mia, Sarah and Mirai said they’re all interested in pursuing a career in the science field.