North Allegheny student takes top prize in national STEM competition
A North Allegheny School District student won a top prize at the national Broadcom MASTERS science fair competition this week.
Meghna Behari, 14, a 9th-grade student at North Allegheny Intermediate School, received the $10,000 Marconi/Saueli Award for Innovation for her project creating a robot that can wirelessly collect and transmit data on water quality.
Behari was also judged on her critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration skills during the competition. Her success earned her school a $1,000 prize to be put towards its science program.
Behari was one of 30 students from across the country to compete in the finals.
The competition, which is organized by the Society for Science and the Public, is designed to encourage middle school students to apply their interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to real-world problems.
"It's all based on personal experiences. And they were like, 'What can I do to solve this that's happening in my community?'" Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science and the Public, said of the competition.
That's exactly what motivated Behari to pursue her project.
Behari heard that local fracking activity could be contaminating local waterways and decided to conduct her own research. She shadowed a state water inspector to see how he conducted weekly tests.
"In working with him, I realized that his methods weren't convenient or efficient, especially since he had to do it on a weekly basis," Behari said.
She set out to replace his method of manually collecting samples with a robot.
After studying field conditions and considering a motor system and body design that could withstand variables like strong currents, frozen water and wildlife, Behari developed a robot that could work in water. It still needs some improvements, she said, but she hopes to adapt the design to allow it to be used in difficult conditions, like areas impacted by hurricanes.
She also thinks the device could be useful for consumer use or by people in countries where access to clean drinking water is unreliable.
Behari plans to invest part of the winnings into furthering her project and to put the rest towards college. In addition to studying engineering in college and building robots "that can perform tasks better than humans can," Behari said that she also hopes to encourage more young women to work in STEM fields, which tend to be male-dominated.
"It's not something I want to just get used to, or accept," she said; rather, it's something she hopes to change.
Behari is a member of the all-girls robotics team Girls of Steel, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University. She is also on the track team and participates in her school's computer and robotics clubs.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.