Solar panels and more garner big prizes for middle-school researchers | Science News for Students

Solar panels and more garner big prizes for middle-school researchers

Kids get recognition and money for science fair projects and a whole lotta teamwork
Oct 24, 2018 — 1:49 pm EST
A photo of Georgia Hutchinson holding a trophy standing in front of a stage surrounded by other young researchers. People are clapping and looking up at confetti falling on them.

Georgia Hutchinson, 13, of Woodside, Calif. (center, holding trophy), beat out 29 other young researchers to win the $25,000 top prize at the 2018 Broadcom MASTERS.

Linda Doane/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A teen has invented a way to increase the energy collected by solar panels — and help homeowners more quickly pay off the costs of installing the technology. Georgia Hutchinson, 13, presented her results this week here at the Broadcom MASTERS competition. She also tackled a strenuous series of science, math and engineering challenges in a team. And on October 23, she claimed the competition’s top prize. She won an educational award worth $25,000.

Georgia lives in Woodside, Calif. She learned of her win at an awards gala here in Washington on Tuesday evening. “This is really cool, but I’m still really in shock!” she said minutes after getting her trophy.

“I’m thrilled to congratulate Georgia, whose project focused on creating a lower cost solar panel system,” says Maya Ajmera. She is president of Society for Science & the Public. The Society created and runs the Broadcom MASTERS program. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.)

Georgia was one of 30 finalists from 14 states in the eighth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition. MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars. The Samueli Foundation provided Georgia’s winnings. This non-profit organization was created by Broadcom Foundation chair Henry Samueli. It is based in Corona del Mar, Calif.

More than a dozen of the finalists took home a total of more than $100,000 in major awards or funds to attend a science camp of their choice. “The Broadcom Foundation is honored to champion young scientists, engineers and innovators and spur them on to greatness,” says Paula Golden. She is president of the Broadcom Foundation.

Students qualified for the competition on the basis of their middle-school science fair projects. Those projects fall within the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Finalists had to be in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade when they competed in their local science fairs.

But Broadcom MASTERS is much more than a science fair. That’s because this week’s judging of those qualifying projects only accounted for 20 percent or so of a finalist’s score. While in Washington, the finalists are divided into teams. The remainder of their score comes from the creativity and collaboration they display while tackling a series of challenges posed to them and their teammates.

Power to the panels!

In her qualifying project, Georgia developed a way to boost the amount of power that could be gathered by solar panels. She didn’t improve the panels themselves. Instead, she came up with a way to steer the panels with motors so that they track the sun’s motion across the sky.

Solar panels collect the most energy when they are perpendicular to the sun. (That is, the sun’s rays arrive at a 90-degree angle to the panels’ surface.) But the sun doesn’t stay in one place. It moves across the sky during the day. Many solar panels, when they are installed, are aimed in a single direction, often south. This lets the panels collect strong, direct sunlight in the middle of the day. But at other times, such as sunrise and sunset, the panels get little if any light, Georgia explains. At midmorning and midafternoon, the panels do get light, but at a less-direct angle. That means they collect less power than at noon. If the solar panels could tilt themselves to follow the sun as it moved, the teen reasoned, they could collect more power over more of the day.

Georgia came up with her idea early last year. People across the United States were really excited about the upcoming total solar eclipse. Georgia realized that astronomers could precisely track the sun’s motion across the sky. And she decided to build a motorized system that could do the same thing. Her system doesn’t use expensive sensors to monitor the position of the panels and how much light they’re getting. Instead, she developed a computer program that drives motors. Those motors move a solar panel to keep the panel as perpendicular to the sun as possible.

One motor spins around a vertical axis. It helps track the sun’s motion from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west. The other motor rotates around a horizontal axis. Its motion decreases the panel’s tilt as the sun gets higher in the sky in the morning. Later in the day, it increases the panel’s tilt as the sun drops toward the horizon. After the sun sets, the motors swing the panels back to their original position. That leaves them ready for the next sunrise.

By keeping a solar panel more in direct line with the sun, Georgia’s tracker would let a panel collect more solar power because it would be getting direct sunlight for more of the day. That, in turn, could help someone who had solar panels on their home save money on their energy bills. Solar panels are expensive to install. So the more money a homeowner saves, the faster they’d be able to recover the costs of their solar panels. Georgia’s calculations suggest that homeowners who used her steering system could pay off their panels about 40 percent sooner than if their panels didn’t move.

Watch the four top winners of the 2018 Broadcom MASTERS competition explain their projects. Society for Science/YouTube

Other award winners

Jack Albright, 14, of Los Altos, Calif., won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement. It is worth $20,000. He developed a technique that could help doctors predict the onset of mild and severe effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jacqueline Prawira, 13, of Mountain House, Calif., won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. It is worth $10,000. She explored how cotton, cellulose and other fibers from discarded waste might be used to strengthen plastic.

John Madland, 14, of Salem, Ore., won the Lemelson Award for Invention. It is worth $7,500. Using computer simulations, he and partner Mihir Nitin Joshi, 12, showed how a magnetic shield could be used to protect colonists on the surface of Mars.

Additional finalists took home first-place awards, worth $3,500, or second-place awards, worth $2,500, in each of the STEM fields. They are:


First place: Amara Orth, 14, from Glenwood, Iowa. She studied how the diversity of plants near a beehive influenced the numbers of antimicrobial chemicals in a waxy substance produced by honeybees.

Second place: Janani Kumaran, 14, from Gainesville, Fla. She studied how combining two methods to control an invasive aquatic plant — snails and a chemical that regulates plant growth — worked much better than either method alone.  


First place: Gabriella Lui, 14, from Palatine, Ill. She developed a way to electronically track students in their classrooms. This could help police or other first responders when disaster strikes or in case of emergencies.

Second place: Gary Zhan, 14, from North Logan, Utah. He modified genes, or cellular instructions, in bacteria and boosted their production by 28 percent of a blue pigment that can be used as a dye.


First place: Alice Feng, 13, from San Jose, Calif. She grew various species of mushrooms on different types of nutrients. She then analyzed properties such as their density and their temperature insulation and soundproofing qualities.

Second place: Mihir Nitin Joshi, 12, from Salem, Ore. He, along with partner John Madland, 14, used computer models to show how a magnetic field could be used to protect colonists on Mars.


First place: Espen Slettnes, 13, from Castro Valley, Calif. He studied how mathematical processes in a particular set of dimensions can be extended into higher numbers of dimensions.

Second place: Asmi Kumar, 14, from Milton, Ga. She analyzed publicly available health data of people with autism. By focusing on their heart rates, she developed an early warning system for what she terms “meltdown episodes.”

Two more finalists earned Rising Stars awards. They are Kate Quinn, 12, from Louisville, Ky. and Sriram Bhimaraju, 12, from Cupertino, Calif. Kate studied flatworms to assess how the common weedkiller atrazine might affect the nervous system. Sriram developed an app that, along with sensors mounted on a bow, can help archers better practice their sport. Each will be delegates to the Broadcom MASTERS International event in Phoenix, Ariz., next May. As part of that trip, they will also be an Official Observer at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Intel ISEF is the world’s largest international science fair competition. It is also a Society for Science & the Public program.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Alzheimer’s disease     An incurable brain disease that can cause confusion, mood changes and problems with memory, language, behavior and problem solving. No cause or cure is known.

angle     The space (usually measured in degrees) between two intersecting lines or surfaces at or close to the point where they meet.

annual     Adjective for something that happens every year. (in botany) A plant that lives only one year, so it usually has a showy flower and produces many seeds.

antimicrobial     A substance used to kill or inhibit the growth of microbes. This includes naturally derived chemicals, such as many antibiotic medicines. It also includes synthetic chemical products, such as triclosan and triclocarban. Manufacturers have added some antimicrobials — especially triclosan — to a range of sponges, soaps and other household products to deter the growth of germs.

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

aquatic     An adjective that refers to water.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

autism     (also known as autism spectrum disorders ) A set of developmental disorders that interfere with how certain parts of the brain develop. Affected regions of the brain control how people behave, interact and communicate with others and the world around them. Autism disorders can range from very mild to very severe. And even a fairly mild form can limit an individual’s ability to interact socially or communicate effectively.

axis     The line about which something rotates. On a wheel, the axis would go straight through the center and stick out on either side. (in mathematics) An axis is a line to the side or bottom of a graph; it is labeled to explain the graph’s meaning and the units of measurement.

bacteria     (singular: bacterium) Single-celled organisms. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside other living organisms (such as plants and animals).

Broadcom MASTERS     Created in 2011 by the Society for Science & the Public, Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. Broadcom MASTERS International gives select middle school students from around the world a unique opportunity to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.

cellulose     A type of fiber found in plant cell walls. It is formed by chains of glucose molecules.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

degree     (in geometry) A unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the circumference of a circle.

density     The measure of how condensed some object is, found by dividing its mass by its volume.

diversity     A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

fiber     Something whose shape resembles a thread or filament. (in nutrition) Components of many fibrous plant-based foods. These so-called non-digestible fibers tend to come from cellulose, lignin, and pectin — all plant constituents that resist breakdown by the body’s digestive enzymes.

gene  (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

heart rate     Heart beat; the number of times per minute that the heart — a pump — contracts, moving blood throughout the body.

horizontal     A line or plane that runs left to right, much as the horizon appears to do when gazing into the distance.

innovation     (v. to innovate; adj. innovative) An adaptation or improvement to an existing idea, process or product that is new, clever, more effective or more practical.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair     (Intel ISEF) Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

magnetic field     An area of influence created by certain materials, called magnets, or by the movement of electric charges.

Mars     The fourth planet from the sun, just one planet out from Earth. Like Earth, it has seasons and moisture. But its diameter is only about half as big as Earth’s.

monitor     To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.

motor     A device that converts electricity into mechanical motion. (in biology) A term referring to movement.

neurological     An adjective that refers to the brain, spinal cord or nerves.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

perpendicular     An adjective that describes two things that are situated approximately 90 degrees to each other. In the letter “T,” the top line of the letter is perpendicular to the bottom line.

phenomena     Events or developments that are surprising or unusual.

pigment     A material, like the natural colorings in skin, that alter the light reflected off of an object or transmitted through it. The overall color of a pigment typically depends on which wavelengths of visible light it absorbs and which ones it reflects. For example, a red pigment tends to reflect red wavelengths of light very well and typically absorbs other colors. Pigment also is the term for chemicals that manufacturers use to tint paint.

plastic     Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

regulate     (n. regulation) To control with actions. Governments write rules and regulations — laws — that are enforced by police and the courts.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

simulation     (v. simulate) An analysis, often made using a computer, of some conditions, functions or appearance of a physical system. A computer program would do this by using mathematical operations that can describe the system and how it might change over time or in response to different anticipated situations.

solar eclipse     An event in which the moon passes between the Earth and sun and obscures the sun, at least partially. In a total solar eclipse, the moon appears to cover the entire sun, revealing on the outer layer, the corona. If you were to view an eclipse from space, you would see the moon’s shadow traveling in a line across the surface of the Earth.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

thermal     Of or relating to heat. (in meteorology) A relatively small-scale, rising air current produced when Earth’s surface is heated. Thermals are a common source of low level turbulence for aircraft.

vertical     A term for the direction of a line or plane that runs up and down, as the vertical post for a streetlight does. It’s the opposite of horizontal, which would run parallel to the ground.

waste     Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.

wood     A porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees, shrubs and other woody plants.