7 North Penn students place top 3 in Montgomery County Science Research Competition


TOWAMENCIN — Earlier this month, 7 North Penn Science, Research, and Technology Students placed one of the top three in their respective category at the Montgomery County Science Research competition (MCSRC). 

The Montgomery County Science Research competition is held annually. Students were given the opportunity to pick their own projects within a certain category. Most students began working in the fall in which they did literature reviews, conducted personal interviews, watched videos, gathered equipment, designed procedures, and ran experiments all on their own time. Their work was done at home, in prep rooms, classrooms, or labs. They had to write abstracts, research plans, and research papers to share their results and conclusions. While the science fair was originally supposed to be held in Germantown, due to the COVID-19 shutdown, it was held virtually.

BRANDON VU (12th grade) and YASH PRABHU (9th grade) 1ST PLACE: Computers “Detecting Firearms Using Computer Vision and Machine Learning” 

Vu and Prabhu knew that they wanted to do a computer science project. With this being Vu’s fifth and last year competing, the two decided to push their limits to make their project as impressive as it can be.

“To do this we explored one of programming’s newest frontiers: machine learning. The summer before this school year, Brandon had done an internship at a Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins. Due to his previous experience in this exciting field, we were able to use machine learning in our project. Our project used different object detection algorithms to detect a weapon. We used an OpenCV algorithm, which used different color filters to detect what was most likely to be a gun. We had one pure deep learning model, which used a Google library, Tensorflow, to detect a weapon from a previously trained model. Our third and most intricate model was a mixed model. This model used a combination of OpenCV and Deep Learning techniques to detect a weapon. The purpose of this was to reduce the load of deep learning on the computer while preserving the accuracy of deep learning. In fact, we were able to tune the mixed model to become even more accurate than the deep learning model at one point in our experiment,” Prabhu said.

The pair began working on their project during the summer. Prior to this, they met during robotics last year where they both decided that they wanted to work together for the competition the following year. 

As they began working, they had meetings during Knight Time or on the phone after school. They conducted in-depth background research about various algorithms, methods, and techniques to detect objects, and reached out to public safety personnel to ask for their opinion on the topic. 

“We struggled with what our data should be. At first, we wanted to mimic real surveillance data as close as possible, but we realized that starting with data too complicated could cause problems for our specific method of running deep learning training,” Vu said.

“We faced many issues with installation. We originally planned to do our project in Linux. However, while installing certain GPU drivers on Linux, we ended up crashing the Operating System and lost hardware input. We also dealt with many issues while tuning our models due to external background interferences that could be detected as weapons,” Prabhu added.

The experience proved to them that all of their hard work paid off. They believe that this accomplishment is just the beginning of a greater experience.

“As a whole, this experience was very enlightening to both of us, as it was the first time either of us would be making object detection methods from scratch,” Prabhu said.

“We were both glad that our extensive efforts had paid off. Our friends and family were very proud that we experienced success in an exhausting year. Now I have learned so much about deep learning and object detection that I feel confident to explore deeper in this topic. I feel that this project was not as much about the results, but more about the learning that I went through,” Prabhu added.

“It proved that all of our hard work was worth it. Looking back, doing research, doing projects, was all worth it. The results of the project specifically were just a starting point for something greater,” Vu added.

Vu and Prabhu enjoy participating in the science fair because they get to network with professionals and their peers.

“What I love most about competing in the science fair is getting professional opinions on a homemade project. There is nothing better than immersing yourself in a field of study for months and have validation from people in that field telling you you’re doing something right,” Vu said.

There is nothing better than immersing yourself in a field of study for months and have validation from people in that field telling you you’re doing something right.

— Brandon Vu

As for the future, Vu will be attending Stanford University and will major in computer science. Prabhu is currently a freshman and plans to participate again next year. 

“I’m excited to see what he is able to do in the next year. Even if he decides to stray from this project idea, I’m sure his next year’s project will be great,” Vu said.

“I definitely want to work on lots of robotics and AI projects at home in the near future. This science fair project has given me the building blocks to do so,” Prabhu said. 

SIDDHI DATE (11th grade) 2ND PLACE: Engineering “Modifying a Piezoelectric Device Harvesting Sound Energy”

This year was Date’s first year competing; however, she was confident that she knew how to prepare for what was required.

“I was already conducting independent research for my AP Research class, and much of what we had to do in science fair was similar to what I was doing in class, so I figured that I’ll just enter my research from class and try my luck,” Date said.

Date wanted to do something that combined both of her passions: science and music. 

“Originally, I wanted to study the effects of music on different organisms, but I couldn’t quite figure out the logistics (Where would I keep them? Do I even have a lab to experiment in?). Then I remembered something that had been in the back of my mind after a conversation with a friend: the possibility of harvesting energy from sound. It sounded a little crazy at first, but then I warmed up to the idea. While this was not directly related to music, I loved the idea because it seemed like something that can be used in real life. Imagine charging your phone by just yelling at it. My only concern was that I would not be able to pull it off because I did not know much about engineering,” Date said.

Her project’s main focus was to make harvesting energy from sound more efficient. 

“The reason we don’t commonly use acoustic energy is because it is very inefficient. Sound is a mechanical wave, so my device relied on converting the mechanical energy from sound into electricity,” Date said.

“When soundwaves hit the beams of my device, it would shake the beams. Attached to the bottom of the beam was a little tab called piezoelectric material, which converted the mechanical vibrations from the beam into electric impulses. The electric impulses would then go along in the circuit, eventually being stored in a device called a capacitor—it is almost like a battery. My hypothesis was that changing the shape of the beams in my device would change how much energy is gathered from the sound, potentially making the device more efficient,” Date explained.

She began planning in November and started building in January. In January, she would come in an hour before school began to work with her mentor, Mr. Boyer, in the Engineering Lab. Initially, she came a few times a week, but in February, she began to come in every day to finish the project and run experiments. Some days, she would come in at five.

At first, she did not know how to properly create the device. 

“I had found a blog post that showed how to make a similar device, but it needed many modifications to be fit for lab testing. Initially, I had no technical knowledge about engineering. Thankfully, Mr. Boyer taught me everything I needed to know to build and modify the device, from how to solder to how to build circuits on breadboards. I could not have done it without him,“ Date said.

One issue that she had to overcome was when she found that the piezo material was responding to the electromagnetic interference from the subwoofer in her experimentation.

“This meant that all the energy was not purely from the sound from the subwoofer; part of the energy gathered is due to the electromagnetic interference. I had to figure out how to account for this in my research. Other struggles include working under strict deadlines. There are so many ways to improve the design, and I found it difficult to stop and say, ‘it’s good enough’ and move onto the next step of the process,” Date said.

Despite her struggles, Date enjoyed the experience.

“The process was actually really fun. It didn’t really feel like work. I loved learning something new every day and actually being able to apply that information in real life. There were so many modifications made to the device, it was insane. The final product only vaguely resembled the original device,” Date said.

It didn’t really feel like work. I loved learning something new every day and actually being able to apply that information in real life.

— Siddhi Date

When she found that she placed second in her category, she was ecstatic. Although her original plan of presenting her device in person didn’t work out, she still managed to succeed. 

“I was really happy and proud when I found out, and honestly I was very surprised. Due to coronavirus, the fair was virtual, which meant that we had to only submit pictures of our poster boards. I couldn’t actually demo my device like originally intended, so I thought that took a lot away from my science fair submission,” Date said. 

“I am very proud of what I managed to accomplish and I am surprised that I actually pulled it off. It was definitely worth it, and I wouldn’t trade those 6 a.m.’s for the world. The results were conclusive. I was so excited,” Date added.

Date plans on participating again next year and already has an idea for her next project.

“I want to either improve upon my project for next year or try something new that incorporates what I have learned from this project. I am not exactly sure how yet. I am thinking of still working with piezo material and making almost a mat out of it that can harvest energy from your footprints when you walk on it. I am not sure if it is possible, but it’s just an idea I have right now,” Date said.

“I realized that I love conducting research, so I definitely want to do that in the future. I also grew my love for engineering, which I am planning to pursue in the future as of now,” Date added.

JESSICA BAEK AND BRIANNA BALDWIN (10th grade) 2ND PLACE: Environmental   “Reducing the Impact of Oil on Benthic Wildlife”

This was not the first time competing for the two. In the previous year, they noticed that not many projects were based upon marine life, and because they both share an interest in helping the environment, they decided that they wanted to find a way to help organisms like clams and oysters after an oil spill.

We simulated an oil spill by putting oil on the clams and oysters. Then, we tested the absorbency of different organic materials, such as feathers, hair, and mushrooms to determine which was the best cleanup option,” Baldwin said.

They began planning their project in October. They started researching their idea and eventually created a procedure for their experiment. By January, they did their experiment after school to prepare for the fair in March.

“To plan the entire project did take us some time to get the variable right and in making sure that we had all the supplies before obtaining the shellfish. We used a supply closet in C pod as our set up room and set up two aquariums filled with oysters and clams,” Baek said.

“The process was time-consuming, but we were able to complete it after school and on weekends. It was difficult splitting my time between schoolwork, science fair, and many other activities that I am involved in. In the beginning, it took a while to coordinate how and where we would be able to complete our experiment. With the help of our advisor, Dr. Leithold, we were able to work through our struggles. It was difficult balancing it all, but in the end, it was worth it,” Baldwin added.

It was difficult balancing it all, but in the end, it was worth it.

— Brianna Baldwin

When they found that they placed second in their category, they were proud that their project was successful.

“I am proud of what we have done and it definitely was worth it. We gained experience working with our advisors and learned to work through our experiments as if we were in a field of science,” Baek said.

“Looking back at our accomplishment, I’m glad I took the chance to be a part of the science fair. Even though it took a lot of time and commitment, I think it was all worth it in the end. I’m very happy with the results from MCSRC and I’m excited that we are now able to participate in the Delaware Valley Science Fair this year,” Baldwin said.

Next year, they plan on completing another project together because they both enjoy the process of researching and conducting an experiment. They believe that participating in the science fair allows them to explore different areas of science that will help them choose a specific career path in the future.

ZACHARY VINITSKI AND ANANYA VENKATACHALAM (10th grade) 3RD PLACE: Biochemistry “Effect of pH on Cellular Regeneration in Planaria”

The two chose their topic because they were interested in the legitimacy of regeneration and anti-aging products that are being sold today. They also wanted to do something related to biochemistry because they’re interested in going in that field in the future.

“Dr. Leithold brought up planaria which is the invertebrate that we used. Between Ananya and I looking up all kinds of things on the internet, we found a few articles relating the actions of the worms to the actions of the human body which lead us to create projects about biochemistry and how planarian regeneration could be effective in learning about the human body because we both have a love for science and human biology,” Vinitski said.

In their project, they took the planaria, which can completely regenerate their body, and cut them in half. They placed the back half of them into petri dishes and they were spread out in different pH levels ranging from an acidic level of 6.5 to a basic level of 9.0. The ultimate goal was to see if the planaria regenerated at a faster rate at a certain pH. They also tried to figure out if human wounds would regenerate faster at that pH level

“We wanted to see if it had any effect on healing and how we could apply that to humans with what we learned about the worms,” Vinitski said. 

It took about a week or two to plan their project and 3 weeks to work on experimentation. Overall, working on the project took the entire month of January.

“We had to purchase all of the supplies and make our research proposal and fill out the necessary forms to actually experiment with live animals. It was during that week where we made the outline for what we wanted to do. Since we got the worms after that week, we had to act fast because they have shorter life cycles than we do. We also had to make sure that they were fed and healthy,” Venkatachalam said.

They kept the worms at Vinitski’s house as he had more resources to care for them. Both contributed money to purchase supplies and took equal part in writing the papers for their board. They fed them and cleaned their water on weekends. They checked on the variables twice a day because they had to control and temperature. They were also able to use an app to check on the worms.

When they both found out that they placed one of the top 3, they were excited that they made such an accomplishment as it was only their first year competing.

“It was pretty exciting because it was our first time collaborating on a scientific project. It was cool to know that our efforts were high ranking in our category,” Venkatachalam said.

“To be honest, it was kind of a shock for me. I guess I didn’t expect it to show up that way, but I was so proud that it did. I had no going into this my first year with my first project that I would have the honor of winning one of the top three places in my category. It was extremely worth it because it’s not only something that got an award, it’s something that could help people,” Vinitski said.

To me, it’s not about the competition, it’s about the experience.

— Ananya Venkatachalam

“To me, it’s not about the competition, it’s about the experience. I wasn’t focused on being first in our division, I was more focused on the experience of experimenting and applying the skills we learned in science,” Venkatachalam said.

“I was able to learn that science and experimentations are really long and thought out processes and it takes a lot of work to come up with an idea to experiment on and successfully get the materials and have everything work out in your favor,” Venkatachalam said.

In the future, Venkatachalam would like to study neuroscience and do research on how to cure bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. She hopes that participating in future science fairs will help her gain the experience of research.

For Vinitski, he wants to go to college for an undergraduate in biochemical engineering and then take that to medical school, so he can go into emergency medicine or anesthesiology to become a physician.

“Ever since I was young, I felt like what I want to do with my life is to help other people. With science and medicine, it would give me a huge chance to help others and give back to other people,” Vinitski said.

The two would like to thank those who helped them along the way, especially Dr. Leithold and Mr. King.

“I would like to say thanks to Dr. Leithold because she was our coordinator for the entire thing. She kept us constantly updated. She’s very approachable and Zach and I had her for bio last year, and that’s also how we knew about the club in the first place,” Venkatachalam said.

Science is not just for the people at the top of their class, it is for anyone who loves science and wants to get involved in the community.

— Zachary Vinitski

“I always thought that [science fairs] were for the smartest people in the world. Doing this made me see that anybody with determination, a love for science, and the ability to take on a little bit of hard work—anybody like that can do something like this and they can make an impact and win an award. Science is not just for the people at the top of their class, it is for anyone who loves science and wants to get involved in the community,” Vinitski said.