SAN JOSE (KPIX) — A team of Valley Christian High School students is one of three final groups — and the only one under-age — competing for a $1 million prize sponsored by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I love being a part of it,” said 11th grader Arnav Gattani.
It’s part of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a three-year global competition to find innovative ways to map the approximately 90 percent of the ocean floor which is still unknown.
Software entrepreneur Danny Kim was a parent volunteer when someone urged him and several students to enter the contest.
“I’m like, this is crazy, we’re junior high kids,” Kim chuckled.
Yet the math and engineering students jumped in. Their team, Ocean Quest, competed against groups of ocean engineers twice their age.
“The fact that we can show other people that we can do it is insane to me,” said 9th grader Sujmira Naroola.
The students took charge, consulted with experts they found and developed an efficient, cost-effective way to map the bottom of the sea.
“Students, because they haven’t been boxed or capped in their thinking, they were thinking outside the box,” Kim explained.
Their innovative AUV — Autonomous Underwater Vehicle — is shaped like a torpedo. Using robotics, high resolution imaging and tracking, the AUV sounded good on paper — but they had to build it.
They borrowed or received donated parts from the company Riptide and Florida Atlantic University.
“A lot of the kids can’t even drive and they’re operating equipment that could cost a million dollars,” Kim noted.
The Valley Christian students advanced to the finals in Puerto Rico for NOAA’s million-dollar prize.
Their unmanned device had to follow a chemical signal to its source underwater but the students only got the primary parts a week before the finals and they couldn’t test it beforehand.
Eleventh grader Micah Kim said, “It’s a little bit nerve-wracking. You go in there, it’s like taking a test without studying for it.”
The teenagers had to quickly program and retrofit their AUV.
“It was kind of Frankenstein together but we were able to make it work,” explained 10th grader Rohan Viswanathan.
“Pieces were falling off but we made sure internal stuff — the wiring — that was pretty much OK,” recalled Naroola.
Of the 32 teams that qualified for the NOAA prize, six made it to the finals and only three actually showed up.
Valley Christian’s Ocean Quest team was the only one with a successful launch.
“We did come farther than any other team,” said 11th grader Mihir Kasmalkar.
“I really think that’s amazing,” said 11th grader Ansel Austin.
Their motto: “nothing is impossible.”
“No matter what, don’t give up. Just keep going,” exclaimed 9th grader Jonah Kim.
If the team wins the million-dollar NOAA bonus prize, they plan to put the money back into their school science program and whether or not Ocean Quest wins a $1 million they share an inspiring story. Young people who are only beginning to map out their careers can develop new tools to map the ocean floor.
Ocean Quest also entered Shell’s Ocean Discovery $7 million contest and the team made it to the semifinals but not to the finals.