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The Adventures of the Nutritional Kingdom Project

Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge – Spring 2023 “Healthy Snacks”

Team members: Natalie O. (Team Lead) (United States), Lara K. (Jordan), Connie H. (United States), Mariem M. (Egypt), Ibrahim S. (United States), Amena S. (Jordan)

Mentor: Leticia Mendoza-Martínez (Mexico)

Childhood obesity has become a major public health issue around the world. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 children is overweight or obese– a particularly prevalent issue in the Hispanic community, where lack of access to affordable, healthy food along with other socioeconomic factors create major disadvantages. For the Junior Academy’s 2023 Spring Innovation Challenge on “Healthy Snacks”, six students formed an international team to develop “The Adventures of the Nutritional Kingdom”– a campaign to encourage healthy eating aimed specifically at Hispanic children in the southern U.S. Collaborating across continents and time zones, the students met online to create the winning project. “Cooperation enhances the goal because when a group from different countries of the world gathers to work on one goal, this undoubtedly confirms its importance,” Meriem says.

According to the CDC, 26.2% of Hispanic youth are obese. Childhood obesity can have broad consequences, from long-term health implications like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, to psychological impacts like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, (often related to bullying). Before devising their solution, the team conducted a survey of Hispanic families in both Spanish and English to help them identify a novel approach. Natalie assumed the role of Team Lead. “I was in charge of overseeing everyone’s collaboration efforts, notifying team members of their weekly tasks, and was the head website developer for the team. It was a surreal experience being a leader of such intelligent and motivated students. Our ideas were productive, and our final results are absolutely spectacular,” she says. “I learned valuable leadership and time management skills that will help me in future years to come.”

To reach the target audience, the team created an interactive, kid-friendly website with a vibrant jungle theme and gender-neutral animal characters, as well as a series of articles providing useful information on healthy nutrition and eating disorders. They also explored recipes, recreating a popular snack using alternative, healthier ingredients, and created an app with 13 different games that incorporated important nutritional information.

Meriem worked for hours on developing the games, using vivid colors attractive to young users. “I contributed by writing four articles on healthy eating habits and summarizing the problem and background of our solution,” explains Connie. “I also researched (former First Lady) Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, alternatives to unhealthy snacks and previous initiatives introducing healthy snacks.” Ibrahim conducted research and contributed extensive data on physical exercise and hydration. “I read articles and answered questions such as how people got their nutrients during the Great Depression, foods that can be cooked at low temperatures as well as foods that keep hydration in your body and more,” he says. Among her many contributions, Amena focused on how to reach the target audience for the app. “I provided my knowledge and skills in business and marketing the product to help us reach children, whether they were high or low-income children, as well as designing the product’s packaging,” she explains.

The team is excited to see their carefully considered, multi-faceted project create social impact, hoping to find ways to even further reduce mental stress and health problems among Hispanic children. In particular, they want to make their website available in Spanish as well as English to expand its reach. “This experience has fostered a deeper understanding of the power of teamwork and its capacity for optimizing collaborative efforts between human agents,” says Lara. “Future pursuits will undoubtedly involve enhanced focus on cooperation among individuals to promote more effective outcomes.”

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Innovation Challenge in Rwanda on “Green Schools, Green Homes, Green Communities”

Young Scientists in Rwanda are Leaders of Environmental Sustainability Movement with STEM Innovation Challenge, Sponsored by Clifford Chance Cornerstone Initiative

The New York Academy of Sciences Green Schools, Green Homes, Green Communities Innovation Challenge in Rwanda was a great success, engaging the participation of 909 local secondary school students from across Kigali, working in 163 teams to create research-driven solutions to environmental problems faced in their community. The Spring 2023 Innovation Challenge, organized by the New York Academy of Sciences in partnership with Association Mwana Ukundwa (AMU), encouraged young scientists aged 13-17 in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali to design an innovative, sustainable approach to address an environmental challenge in the places where they live and study. Sponsored by the Clifford Chance Cornerstone Initiative, and building off the widespread enthusiasm for the Spring 2022 Innovation Challenge on Urban Gardens in Rwanda, this challenge latest green challenge called for creative, practical solutions that could be implemented in Rwandan schools, homes, and communities to turn environmental challenges into sustainable growth.

The students from 12 public schools in Kigali who took part in the Green Schools, Green Homes, Green Communities Innovation Challenge contributed to raising awareness of the environmental challenges facing Rwanda and the rest of the world. They researched problems related to environmental sustainability, brainstormed with teammates to design and test creative solutions, and created scientific presentations to communicate their ideas to their peers and community. Each team was guided in their efforts by dedicated teachers from the twelve participating schools who served as Mentors to the students and supported them through developing their research projects.

Young Scientists Innovate Practical Solutions through Research and Creativity

Over the past two decades, Rwanda has become a global leader in sustainable development after adopting economic growth strategies that incorporate environmental protection and climate change adaptation. As a small, landlocked country, Rwanda faces numerous challenges due to climate change, the unequal distribution of potable water and the over-exploitation of natural resources.

A growing number of individuals, young people in particular, are exploring innovative ways to address these problems and create meaningful change at the local and community level. As emerging leaders in the movement to prevent environmental degradation and promote sustainability, the young scientists participating in the challenge demonstrated that through ingenuity and hard work, practical solutions can be found to make homes, schools and communities greener and reduce the pressure on precious natural resources and the environment.

The Winning Team and selected Runner-Up Teams were invited to present their innovative solutions at the Open Day celebration for the challenge held at AMU. They showcased their projects to an audience of over a thousand people including their families, all of the students in the challenge, educators and school leaders from the participating schools, and government officials, including the Coordinator of the Joint Action Development Forum from the Office of the Mayor in Kigali and the Director of Education for the entire Kicukiro district. The scientific solutions from these students have been taken up and used by residents across Rwanda to improve wellbeing, public health, and economic and environmental sustainability.

Winning Team: Sustainable Resource Management and Conservation for Achieving Green Homes and Green Communities

Team Members: Clarisse (Team Lead), Leandre, Joyeuse, Mucyo, Ayubu, Jolie
Mentor: Nizeyimana Bonaventure

The winning team tackled the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of traditional cooking methods, which rely heavily on firewood. The widespread use of wood for cooking contributes to deforestation and produces harmful gas emissions. Wood burning also causes air pollution within the home, which has a detrimental impact on human health and is linked to pneumonia, lung cancer and other severe health conditions.

The team members’ solution was to build an innovative stove, using affordable materials, to reduce fuel consumption. After conducting research to come up with an optimal design, the students crafted a stove made of iron sheeting and lined with clay. They incorporated an electronic fan, which enhances combustion efficiency. After testing their prototype, the team found that their device significantly reduces fuel consumption, thus limiting the impact on the environment. Shorter cooking times and better heat control also improve indoor air quality while easing the cooking burden for household members. The team won first place for this original project, which helps combat deforestation, the health impacts of air pollution and the inefficient use of natural resources.

Runner-Up Team: Green Surrounding Us

Team Members: Emerance (Team Lead), Leogad, Diane, Solange, Alliance
Mentor: Baseka Didier

Many people in Rwanda suffer from the searing summer heat and lack of cool air indoors, whether in houses or at school where it affects students and administration employees. In the course of their research, the team members found out that a majority of people around the world experience lack of access to indoor fresh, cool air. “I was very interested in this project. We had fun and did hard work in the group, brainstorming and searching for a solution,” says team member Alliance. After collecting information online and interviewing local environmental experts, the team members designed and produced a light, portable fan with blades made of discarded cardboard. Powered by a rechargeable battery and equipped with an on/off switch, the fan provides hours of cool relief, and the reused cardboard does not end up in landfill.

Runner-Up Team: Amazing Green

Team Members: Nice (Team Lead), Jeannette, Ange Scovia, Chanisse, Rosine, Beatrice
Mentor: Baseka Didier

The students in this team focused on improving their school environment by tackling two challenges at once: reducing waste and creating storage to improve order in the classroom. “Me and my teammates have gained many things from this project,” says team leader Nice. “Working together, we have learned to be part of society and care about others’ attitudes.” Collecting plastic bottles and old cardboard to prevent them from littering the environment, the team members upcycled these materials by crafting shelf racks to store documents and other school supplies. The students applied their math and science skills to design the racks and used the plastic bottles to prop up cardboard shelves. “I was given the responsibility to find cardboard in my group and I really studied to create teamwork in the group,” says team member Ange Scovia. “I had fun and laughed a lot during this project.” The sturdy shelf racks were designed to bear a weight of up to 4 kilograms and last 3 to 5 years. As proof of concept, the team produced a prototype, demonstrating that their model is both easy and inexpensive to replicate.

Runner-Up Team: Sustainable Life in the Green Community from Discarded Material

Team Members: Jean-Marie (Team Lead), Fils, Anna Jali, Emmanuel, Naomi, Amani
Mentor: Rubarema Maurice

The six team members first studied the impact of waste on the environment by observing the evolution of different types of waste on two small plots of land: they saw that organic kitchen waste decayed and turned into compost that contains important nutrients for plants, but plastic containers and plastic bags remained intact, cluttering the ground and preventing plant growth by blocking access to carbon dioxide and sunlight. After consulting experts, the team came up with three practical uses for recycled plastic containers. First, they used old jerrycans to grow plants, particularly vegetables — an approach that enables households with limited access to land to supplement their diet with healthy, home-grown food. The jerrycans were also utilized as composting receptacles to turn kitchen waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer and as containers for smaller plastic waste. “Before doing this challenge, I was not good at working collaboratively in a team,” explains team member Emmanuel. “This challenge made me realize that working together leads to the best solutions because different ideas are collected together to create the main idea.”

Runner-Up Team: Terracing to Prevent Soil Erosion

Team Members: Ally (Team Lead), Anaclet, Nelly Chanella, Jean-Baptiste, Fabrice, Fidele
Mentor: Karangwa Adiel

Soil erosion is a problem caused by rainwater and human activities such as agriculture and deforestation. The members of this team were inspired to tackle this pressing issue largely because soil erosion caused by an inadequate drainage system threatens their school. “With the team I found new friends and I did my best to give ideas and contribute to the design of the solution,” says team member Jean Baptiste. After visiting the site and building model terraces on the hillside, the students found that terracing reduces the steepness of the slope and slows down the water flow, preventing rain from washing away the topsoil and crucial nutrients. In addition, planting fruit trees and crops on the terraces contributes to a greener school environment and provides healthy food. In the course of the project, participants acquired both knowledge and self-confidence. “I was very shy at the beginning of the project,” says team member Nelly Chanella, “but now I can engage in constructive discussions.”

Runner-Up Team: Green Operation

Team Members: Liliane (Team Lead), Yvan, Zainah, Djuma, Elisaa, Diane
Mentor: Musenge Hosiane

This team focused on the water pollution caused by the ever-growing use of plastic bottles, which are almost indestructible and often end up in the ocean. When the bottles do eventually decompose, the plastics break down into micro-particles that seep into the soil and drift into the waterways, causing harm to humans and other animals. To reduce waste and water pollution, the six team members sought innovative ways to reuse plastic bottles and jerrycans while also improving their school environment. They turned used plastic containers into pencil holders and receptacles for school supplies to keep classrooms well organized and clean. Their efforts also showed their fellow students how to recycle effectively to reduce water pollution and protect the environment. “Being a first-year member of the New York Academy Innovation Challenge has been an unforgettable journey that has helped me hone my skills and make friends that will last a lifetime,” says team leader Liliane, adding, “I met hardworking individuals who helped me improve my own skills and taught me many valuable lessons in teamwork and analytical thinking.”

Students Create an App to Promote Urban Farming Around the World

Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge – Spring 2023 “Urban Gardens”

Team members: Tianze H. (Team Lead) (United States), Tianlai H. (United States), Radwa A. (Egypt)

Mentor: Olusola Ladokun (Nigeria)

Urban gardening can be an effective way to provide fresh and healthy food at a low cost, particularly in parts of the world where food security remains elusive. But it involves many variables– climate, soil, location, sun exposure, type of crop– and urban residents often need education and guidance in order to be successful gardeners right from the start. Three students — Tianze H. (United States, Team Lead), Tianlai H. (United States), Radwa A. (Egypt) — worked under the guidance of their mentor, Olusola Ladokun (Nigeria) to address this knowledge gap, and ultimately won the Spring 2023 Junior Academy Innovation Challenge with their project, “Family Farming: The Ultimate Planting Companion”. The project aims to promote urban gardening around the world by providing useful tips to city dwellers that enables them to supplement their diet with home grown crops.

“After long discussions we finally settled on the current idea,” says Tianlai. “Personally, I contributed creative ideas for our projects, like using deep learning algorithms in our application. I also worked with my teammates on the slides, adding things that they might have missed.” To identify what information would-be gardeners might need, the team conducted a small survey before designing an eco-friendly app called Family Farmers. The app contains a scanner that taps into existing plant and weather databases in order to identify the best potential garden locations based on available amount of space and local climate. The app also provides information about farming methods, and shows how common household items can be used for gardening to keep costs low.

Adding a Fun Factor to Urban Gardening

Family Farmers is designed to be the ultimate tool for aspiring gardeners, with an AI search engine that can be used to find suitable plants, an option to share progress and tips with a community of like-minded garden enthusiasts, and a calendar to remind users when to water and take care of their plants. The students also added an element of entertainment to their app, with plant-related games that provide fun facts about gardening.

Developing this innovative solution required hard work. The small but mighty team size (just three people) did not deter the committed students– in fact, it helped with the difficult task of coordinating online meetings across time zones. “The size of the group does not matter. In fact, it might have even helped everyone strengthen our relationships,” says Team Lead Tianze. “We were also able to help each other and make up for what we may not be good at. The teammates were willing to cooperate and overcome the time differences that we have,” says Tianze. “We were also able to help each other and make up for what we may not be good at. Helping to solve a real-world problem was a great experience.”

Team member Radwa enjoyed researching the issues surrounding gardening in an urban environment and collaborating with international students. “This was my first time in a program that involves meeting students from different nationalities and working together on new ideas,” he said. “This is a wonderful thing and I’m very glad to have gone through this experience, meeting new friends and learning many things in a field that I’m passionate about. I hope to do something that is related to it one day.”

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Guilherme Durvan António Zandamela

PhD student
The Scripps Research Institute

The greatest benefit in joining the Academy was meeting and befriending like-minded people from all around the globe. It has been inspirational to see how the peers I met and I have all grown over the years. I was initially invited to be a young member of the Academy and later chose to remain close because I identified with the academy’s ideals and appreciated the continued impact of its programs on aspiring scientists, problem-solvers, and tactful leaders.

Maitreyi Muralidhar

Student member

Joining the Academy as a young member has truly been a remarkable experience. Through the mentoring platform, I was able to connect with students across the globe and meet amazing mentors who have played a huge part in my life! I am grateful for all the skills I picked up from doing the challenges like scientific reasoning and critical thinking, which will surely go a long way!

An App to Improve Health for Underserved, Rural Communities

A person sits in a boat in a dried lakebed.

Meet the winning team from the Fall 2022 Junior Academy Challenge, “Public Health Impacts of Climate Change.”

Published December 21, 2023

In Fall 2022, 42 international teams of high school students participated in a Junior Academy Challenge to find innovative solutions for the multiple impacts of climate change on human health.

The winning team, MiHealth — comprised of Betsy D. (United States, Team Lead), Joanna A. (United States), Mehmet A. (United States), Grace Chenxin L. (United States), Brennan C. (United States), and Rowayda A. (Egypt) — opted to focus on the Miami area’s prolonged exposure to heatwaves, chosen because of Miami’s high level of poverty in underserved communities with limited access to quality healthcare. The team worked under the guidance of mentor Raga Krishnakumar (United States).

In particular, the team noted that in the South Florida area, where access to healthcare is acutely below state and national averages, African Americans and Latinos are among the most underserved communities. Southern U.S. states like Florida face a growing number of days in which temperatures reach above 100oF.

Miami Dade county, for example, currently endures 50 very hot days per year, but this number is expected to rise to 91 within the next thirty years. According to the Center for Disease Control, exposure to extremely high temperatures increases risks for patients suffering from hypertension, heart disease, angina and stroke.

“I chose this challenge because I intend to pursue medicine and felt that it connected well with climate change,” explains Mehmet. The health risks caused by climate change also resonated with fellow team member Brennan, who was taking part in his third Junior Academy challenge. “I believe health and climate change are a huge problem in the world. Everyone is affected by it and finding solutions as quickly and efficiently as possible should be the world’s priority,” he says.

Developing an App for Underserved Communities

The team designed an ingenious, easy-to-use app called “MiHealth (Miami Health)” that delivers telemedicine services to underserved communities, particularly in rural, poor or crowded areas in southern Florida where access to quality healthcare is limited. Team Lead Betsy found the experience of cooperating remotely with other students very rewarding.

“I have always been researching and wanting to make a change in the world through science and medicine. These passions have led me to take on the challenge of solving public effects of climate change”, she explains.

Aside from limited access to medical professionals, the team also identified the lack of access to ambulances or air-conditioned transportation as a key issue. Stepping outside in the searing heat may pose a significant danger for vulnerable patients. Cost, too, is a major concern for socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

Developing the app required hard work and intense consultations among team members, supported by their mentor. The app offers pre-hospitalization diagnosis, information on preventative measures, and a telecardiology feature to monitor heat-induced heart disease.

Utility Beyond Southern Florida

It also monitors local temperature and links users to medical resources available in their vicinity. While their project focused on the Miami area, the team believes their innovative approach could be rolled out nationwide to help vulnerable populations gain access to healthcare resources.

“Working on the public health impacts of climate change has greatly expanded my knowledge, particularly about heat waves, their causes, and how they can affect the human body in Miami and other parts of the world,” says Rowayda.

“It’s been an insane journey,” says Joanna. “Through constant zoom meetings, coding sessions, and researching, I’ve not only fostered my current skills, but I’ve learned new ones and created new memories with such amazing people.”

MiHealth team members were delighted that their hard work paid off and their innovative solution was chosen as the winning project.

“I’m incredibly grateful to NYAS and the Junior Academy for offering a global platform for collaborating on such critical issues,” says Grace. “Knowing that we can change the world together is unbelievable, one-of-a-kind, and empowering!”

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Exploring the Impact of Oil Spills

A shot of fish swimming in the ocean.

Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge – Go Green Sea Blue Team
“Exploring the Extremes” – Fall 2022

Sponsored by NEOM

Published November 16, 2023

Team members: Ellen B. (Team Lead) (Philippines), Valeria S. (Peru), Joaquin S. (Peru), Smriti K. (Nepal), Tanisha T. (Indonesia)

Mentor: Jasmine P. (United States)

“Exploring the Extremes” required participating teams to offer new solutions to the major issues of our time.

The winning team, “Go Green Sea Blue”, took an ambitious, multi-pronged approach to tackling the complicated problem of oil spills, which pollute our oceans and threaten our marine ecosystems, our wildlife, and even our coastal environments.

“I loved the brainstorming sessions we had as a team and the passion each member showed for their part was transparent,” says Smirti. “As part of the research and game development team, I learned a lot about oil spills, and this strengthened my motivation for this project. Writing articles for our website helped me improve my writing.”

The team members identified key issues in the handling of oil spills, drawing on their diverse skills.

“Our team members came from diverse backgrounds and brought unique skills to the project,” explains Team Lead Ellen, who found the Challenge “an extremely rewarding experience.”

The Challenges

For example, tracking and locating oil spills, and containing their impact, is often difficult. Clean-up methods are insufficient to prevent long-term damage, and governments often struggle to identify those responsible and hold them accountable.

“This project has been a huge opportunity for me. It has changed my opinion on certain topics and made me realize the importance of having different points of view and of diversity,” says Valeria.

Building on the initial research they conducted, team members held long meetings online to develop a comprehensive approach that addresses several of these deficiencies. Jasmine, who mentored the team (and had supported teams in two previous Junior Academy Challenges), was impressed with their approach.

“I felt incredibly fortunate to work with such an organized team,” she explains. “At the first meeting, the team showed me their action plan for the whole challenge. The level of detail and organization from Go Green Sea Blue was absolutely remarkable.”

The students devised a five-point approach to address the devastating impact of oil spills on the oceans and the threat they pose to marine and human life. It wasn’t always easy.

“Though my team faced a lot of setbacks due to time differences and the tight schedule, we pulled together and figured out a way to make it work,” says Tanisha. “We made sure that we put quality over quantity and invested our efforts to do the best that we were able to do.”

The Team’s Process

As a first component of their solution, the high-schoolers proposed the creation of a machine-learning model that relies on satellite images to detect oil spills, using Radarsat Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR) technology and Automatic Identification System (AIS) to identify the most likely perpetrators.

Next, they suggested developing a mapping tool that would combine static and real-time data to create a centralized, interactive map for environmental disaster response, improving communication among environmental experts working on ocean pollution. To improve response time, they also proposed developing an eco-friendly mothership that incorporates early warning systems and GPS sensors to track and help clean up oil spills, using mini robots powered by photovoltaic cells that can operate for several weeks.

Raising awareness of the risks posed by oil spills, and the importance of maintaining ocean ecosystems among the population, especially for children, was the fourth element of the team’s extensive solution. To make learning fun and appealing, they devised an interactive game that tests the knowledge of users of all ages.

Finally, the team members proposed a new policy: the creation of a World Association for Marine Oil Spills which would work with existing marine institutions, such as the European Safety Maritime Agency and the Caspian Environmental Program, to improve international cooperation, raise funds for dedicated scientific research, and organize events– and also identify loopholes in existing legislation, and propose new laws.

“We had good times in the meetings– sometimes fun, sometimes just excited by the progress we made day by day,” says Joaquin. “Even though we worked until the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning on some days, we are very satisfied with the results we have achieved.”

Our Life is Safer with Smart Shelter Team

A graphic illustration showing a depiction of the Internet of Things within a women's home.

Winner of the Junior Academy Challenge – Smart Shelter Team

“Internet of Things (IoT) Smart Homes” – Spring 2022

Sponsored by Ericsson

Published November 02, 2023

Team members: Al-Zahraa A. (Team Lead) (Oman), Tahra A. (Oman), Miaad A. (Oman), Taher A. (Oman)

Mentor: Venkatesan Subramaniyan (India)

The Middle Eastern Sultanate of Oman is vulnerable to extreme weather events like hurricanes and air depressions, which can cause severe damage and threaten lives.

In Spring 2022, the New York Academy of Sciences ran a Junior Academy Innovation Challenge for high school students in Oman with a passion for science, focused on designing Smart Shelters to prevent loss of life. The challenge was won by four-member team “Our Life is Safer with Smart Shelter”.

“We chose to work on smart shelters because it is very important to protect people during wars or natural disasters,” explains Taher. “We researched and collaborated in meetings to get the best out of our project and raise our knowledge.”

The Team’s Process

Communicating over the Academy’s Launchpad platform, the students first considered the extensive needs of disaster survivors before coming up with solutions to improve shelters, noting that people seeking protection in adverse circumstances often need to spend lengthy periods of time in shelters before the risks subside.

Through online collaboration, and with guidance from their mentor, the students explored all aspects of life inside shelters and developed innovative approaches to enhance energy efficiency and improve the quality of life for residents. “Our team put a lot of effort in reading articles related to our topic, finding solutions to the problems facing us and creating new ideas, which can sometimes be strange,” says Team Lead Al-Zahraa.

The winning team’s submission focused on using data– in particular, the interconnected web of computing devices and digital machines known as the Internet of Things (IoT)– to monitor energy, water and air quality/air usage and improve the efficiency of service provision in the shelters automatically. They also highlighted the use of data to enhance security, register new residents, and to keep track of unsheltered people at risk in order to direct them to shelters with available space.

A Focus on Environmental Sustainability

To generate energy, the team suggested integrating solar panels on shelter roofs and using tidal power in coastal areas. They also recommended deploying nanotechnology water purifiers to remove microbes, chemicals and other contaminants and secure a steady supply of drinking water for shelter residents. Sensors could serve multiple functions in smart shelters: they could be fitted on smart faucets to prevent wasting limited water resources, or be used to enhance flood drainage systems.

From measuring air quality to using smart-cultivation farming to provide food, the winning team addressed many of the complexities involved in providing effective protection to victims of natural disaster or war. Their comprehensive solution also included the use of apps to monitor health and nutrition among shelter residents.

“This experience taught me a lot about Internet of Things (IoT) applications,” says Tahra. “I benefited greatly from the extensive research we did to reach the best possible solution and to fill the gaps as much as possible.”

Students Take On Misinformation in Science

The winning team of the Spring 2022 Junior Academy Challenge set out to develop a solution that would help clear up the confusion caused by conflicting social media messages about mental health, vaccines and other health-related topics.

A shot of a syringe and dose of COVID vaccine.

An all-girl team of high school students from the US, Oman, Jordan and Lebanon won the Spring 2022 Junior Academy Challenge, “Combating Misinformation in Public Health.”

Students participating in the challenge were tasked with finding new ways to combat the growing wave of misinformation on public health issues – a problem that affects not only the general public, but leaves young people, who get most of their information online, particularly vulnerable. Erroneous statements about drugs, vaccines, mental health, cancer, nutrition and other health-related topics can spread very rapidly on social media platforms, putting people’s lives and well-being at risk.

Collaborating online and supported by their mentor, the five science-loving teenagers — Angel J. (United States. Team Lead), Asmaa K. (Jordan), Esraa A. (Oman), Clara I. (Lebanon), and Raneem A. (Jordan) set out to assess the situation by researching information circulating about specific health issues, under the guidance of their mentor Kathy Korsen (United States).

“On some sites, we may find wrong information and believe it,” explains Esraa. “We must pay attention not to trust the wrong information and search for correct sources.”

Combatting Misinformation on Social Media

The team wanted to develop a solution that would address the needs of their peers, who were often confused by the conflicting messages throughout social media.

After conducting surveys among friends and relatives, the five students decided to develop Texlic, a subscription service delivering reliable, health-related facts via text messages. The team felt that this delivery method had the most potential for widespread impact, as it doesn’t require the use of expensive smartphones and therefore can be accessible to young people from all backgrounds.

Fellow students who signed up with their phone numbers were given two options: they could choose ‘Texify’, which would text users twice a week with direct, accurate information on health issues, or ‘Right from Wrong’, a fun, interactive version using a pre-existing texting platform and allowing users to test if health-related statements were true or false.

Dedication and Effort Pays Off

For the team members, taking part in the Challenge involved dedication and significant effort.

“We met every Saturday. It was the best time for everyone because of the different time zones,” says Asmaa. “We made it work.”

The five participants were enriched by the experience– by investigating health issues frequently in the news and using their data to develop a science-based solution, they acquired new knowledge, cultivated team spirit, and strengthened a range of useful skills.

“A thing I learned was that if there are any uncertainties, such as whether a survey was off, it must always be checked multiple times,” says Clara. Winning the challenge was merely a bonus. “I have learned to persevere and never give up. I thought that we were well-organized and well-planned,” said Team Lead Angel.

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

Getting Out the Facts on Public Health

A tablet with a medical application pulled up on the screen.

All-Girl Team Wins Junior Academy Challenge Combating Public Health Misinformation.

Collaborating across borders, U.S.-based student Angel and Asmaa from Jordan won New York Academy of Sciences’ Junior Academy Innovation Challenge with a text-based campaign designed to combat online misinformation and provide young people with accurate facts about public health issues. The two participants were part of an all-female STEM team that also included participants from Lebanon and Oman.

Angel, aged 15, who lives in upstate New York, and Asmaa, aged 16, based in Amman, Jordan, have never met in person– but the two high school students got to know each other well over an intense 10-week period in the spring.

Both passionate about science, the teenagers collaborated online, alongside other team members from Lebanon and Oman, to compete in New York Academy of Sciences’ Junior Academy Innovation Challenge, “Combating Misinformation about Public Health.” The Junior Academy is a virtual, international network of students aged 13-17 who have a deep interest in STEM and work together to solve society’s greatest challenges (“Innovation Challenges”).

For Angel and Asmaa, the experience has been uplifting– not only because their team, “Girls Combating Misinformation,” won the challenge (chosen among 11 teams that submitted final presentations).

“Being part of this challenge has definitely impacted me, in my coursework at school, in other areas in my life. I feel better getting my voice out. I have become more of a scientific thinker overall because you have to come up with a creative solution that attracts people and offers a different approach. I feel I have grown as a person through this project,” said Angel.

Empowering Girls in STEM

Both participants acknowledge that girls sometimes lack the confidence to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“Girls may think they don’t have enough knowledge to get into STEM. Sometimes, the community places the bar too high, although this may not just affect girls,” said Asmaa.

Globally, women are still under-represented in STEM-related fields, both in education and as practitioners. On average, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women.[1] In general, fewer women than men study life sciences, and the gender gap is even wider in fields like engineering and maths.

Diversity is important for the future of science, which is why the Junior Academy seeks to empower young women in STEM and to encourage them to consider careers in these fields. In 2021-2022, its programs had 63 percent female participation.

At the initial stage, the teammates, coming from diverse backgrounds, assessed each other’s strengths and abilities, communicating through the Junior Academy’s Launchpad online platform.

“We all had different interests coming in, then we started narrowing them down. It was very useful to have their insights, different perspectives. It really helped the project blossom,” said Angel.

She praised the team spirit that developed among the participants as they allocated tasks and responsibilities and started developing and testing their ideas.

Developing an Idea

Before coming up with their innovative approach against misinformation, the team researched how information on vaccines, cancer, tobacco, drugs, mental health, nutrition, and other health conditions is disseminated online. They immersed themselves in their assignment, meeting online every Saturday, reaching out to experts, and carrying out surveys among their peers to gain a better understanding of the problem.

“A lot of misinformation about health affects children and teens through social media,” reflected Asmaa, who said she boosted her research skills during the challenge. “When you start researching a topic, you want to get to the root of it.”

Eventually, the students opted to use text messages as the most impactful way to reach young people, and designed a campaign that would deliver daily, accurate facts on health issues, focusing particularly on correcting misleading information on topics trending on social media. To test their approach, they encouraged peers to sign up to receive these reliable health messages.

“We were stoked to have won the challenge,” said Angel, who suggested to her teammates that they continue working on the project and implement their concept. “We’ll do some outreach and tell the world about our solution.”

Angel and Asmaa said working as a team on this assignment has taught them a lot and strengthened their skills in communication, writing, leadership and problem solving.

“I feel that all of us have gained more confidence in ourselves, and we’ll push to end the STEM gender divide,” Angel says.

Inspired to Inspire

Having a supportive mentor who shared her own expertise and provided guidance and encouragement along the way contributed to their success, Asmaa pointed out. Asmaa believes role models are important, particularly for girls who may find STEM topics daunting.

She credits a charismatic science teacher at her school for kindling her own passion for maths and biology.

“I hope one day I will be able to inspire others to do what they want. To students interested in participating in a challenge, especially girls, I would say: It is a great experience. Don’t hesitate; just go for it. We all make mistakes and we learn from them. That’s how we grow,” said Asmaa.

For teenagers who have not found such inspiration at school, she believes that participating in the Junior Academy would be an exciting way to explore STEM fields.

Asmaa says her involvement in the project has made her more self-assured, and has reinforced her desire to study medicine. Angel, whose primary interests were psychology and the human mind, says the project has sparked her interest in a new field. “After this challenge on public health, I feel I want it to be part of my future,” she said.

The Junior Academy was supported by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.

[1] UNESCO, Women in Science 2019

A version of this story was originally published on the Stevens Initiative’s website here.