Ingenuity of ex-LCHS Science Enthusiasts is Recognized

Consider them a team of scientific superheroes whose mission is to democratize air quality data in a way that tangibly benefits the world.
A quintet of former La Cañada High School students — operating together as Team Scintilla — united for a NASA-hosted international hackathon in April with a clear goal. They wanted to make something cool.
In the process, they conjured up a significant victory, winning not just the local competition in Pasadena but the global award for the Best Use of Data.
For that, the team of Chelsea Graf, Chris Del Guercio, Eric Gustafson, Konrad Ludwig and Kyle Spitznagel earned an invitation to attend the OSIRIS-REx space shuttle launch in Florida in September. They’ll also be granted a two-month residency at Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena to continue to work on their project.
“We had fun and got to hang out with our friends and got to make something cool,” Graf said. “That’s what we wanted.”
“And then,” Ludwig said, “we won.”
Before the start of the fifth NASA Space Apps Challenge hackathon, this collection of diverse thinkers in their late-20s, whose areas of expertise extend from architecture and cybersecurity to aerospace and computer science, considered a handful of possible prompts. Then they ranked them on a scale of “spicy,” “medium” and “mild” before deciding to tackle the “Aircheck” challenge, which asked them to develop an app or platform to crowdsource information for comparing changes in environmental factors.
What they came up with when they gathered for a weekend in Pasadena was a way to combine data sets collected via Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations and NASA satellites with information culled from social media and their very own homemade sensor.
Ludwig explained that NASA’s data, coming from high above the Earth, doesn’t give researchers a gauge of the altitude of what they’re seeing. On the other hand, the EPA data is more reliable but only applies to a smaller area.
Meshing those two would offer a more accurate reading, the team determined. Adding the social media component could tell them even more.
“We’re finding that with health data, you really only see when a person goes to a hospital or a doctor or refills a prescription,” Ludwig said. “All great traces for health quality, but it doesn’t tell you anything less than that. So if you’re trying to figure out, ‘If I have bad allergies to pollen, should I go outside today?’ There’s not much correlation there.
“So what we were trying to do with the Twitter data to correlate something like ‘I’m sneezing my head off’ as a negative in a certain geolocation and then trace that to the particulates in the air. That was the crowdsourcing piece.”
“So,” added Gustafson, “the idea here was that we have this data from NASA, we have this crowdsourced stuff, but one thing we’re really trying to do is get accurate data. You can’t get more accurate than having a sensor on the ground.”
Such sensors already exist, Gustafson said, but they’re not nearly as budget-friendly as the one he’s invented.
Gustafson’s sensor achieved the “blinky, flashy-light component” and a “rainbow spaghetti” interior of wires that worked so well it easily registered vapor across the room several minutes after it had been released. His design, he said, could be built for $5-$6 each.
“It’s not that expensive, especially if you’re sort of aiming to build them for the sake of the planet and not trying to make a huge profit,” he said.
Now, imagine putting those inexpensive sensors on drones or buses in order to collect yet another layer of data.
Yeah, the result is impressive — especially because it was born of the labors of a team of friends who so enjoyed geeking out together for a weekend.
“The coolest thing that we had was a lot of skill sets that we brought to the table, and the getting along helped us share and contribute each of our skill sets,” Spitznagel said.
“It was really motivating, actually. You’re surrounded by people who are finishing really cool stuff that you haven’t thought at all about, and you get an IM on the chat window and see they’re done [with a task] and ready to help or to do the next task. It was like a little coffee boost every time somebody completed something.”
“And there was a lot of trust between everybody,” Graf said. “If you needed help, you would say it and everyone would be like, ‘OK, how can we help? Let’s figure it out.’”
That they did. Team Scintilla’s project was one of five global winners among 1,287 entries, the largest field to partake in a NASA Space Apps Challenge to date.
“Our concept was more complete,” Del Guercio said. “Some [groups] did have a really high level of machine learning stuff that out-teched us, but I think it was our concept that must have done it. We did actually prove the concept.”
And much as they did when they were students together in Jill Waters’ science class at La Cañada High School, they had fun. “We had a blast,” said Graf.

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