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Four Duke Teams Represent at Make for the Planet Conservation Competition

Published: 3 weeks ago | 0 comments

University students and professionals from across the nation teamed up over Earth Day weekend to brainstorm implementable solutions to the world’s toughest conservation problems.

Sixteen multidisciplinary teams competed in the first-ever Make for the Planet, hosted by Conservation X Labs during the Smithsonian Institution’s Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C. Four of those teams included students from Duke University – two of those teams made it to the final four teams, and one team was named one of two winners and awarded $2,500.

Make for the Planet was inspired by a similar conference and competition, Blueprint, which was hosted by student group Duke Conservation Tech in January. Make for the Planet began April 21 when five conservation experts pitched conservation problems to the teams and Earth Optimism attendees in a standing-room only session. The participating teams then had less than 72 hours to engineer solutions to these problems. Conservation X Labs provided a pop-up makerspace, including electronics and 3-D printer equipment for the teams to create models and prototypes of their solutions over the weekend.

Dr. Barbara Martinez, open innovation director for Conservation X Labs, said that she was impressed by the diversity of teams, two-thirds of which were undergrads and graduate students with one-third of teams made up of professionals.

University students often offer interesting solutions because of their vantage point, Martinez said.

“This is the time when students are exploring what they’re interested in and are exposed to a lot of different disciplines,” she said. “There’s so much creativity and knowledge in the university that it’s the perfect institution to tap for these kinds of events. Great scientists have defined the problems well, but it’s going to take collaboration across disciplines to solve them.”

The conservation challenges ranged from overfishing to tracking small animals’ movement through ecosystems to stopping the spread of invasive species.

The Duke teams presented the following solutions:

  • Team Red Panda: A low-cost system to store fish on boats. The system removes oxygen using inexpensive and easy to obtain equipment and would reduce spoilage and wastage on small fishers’ boats in developing, tropical countries. This team was comprised of three Duke students and one North Carolina State University student.
  • Atlantic Sturgeon: An app to track bee colony collapse disorder, which would give feedback to beekeepers based on photos that they take of their bee hives. The photos would be analyzed using computer vision to detect the presence of Varroa This team was comprised of three Duke students and one North Carolina State University student.
  • Green Eggs and Sam (finalist): A system using larger predator animals as proxies to track small animals via chemical cues released in the environment. The larger predators would be outfitted with tracking collars carrying sensors to detect the chemical traces in the environment.
  • Paw 2017 (prize winner): A passive algae collection device, called “Maralga”, that would reduce algae concentrations in sensitive coral habitats.

Both Green Eggs and Sam and Paw 2017 were selected to pitch during the final plenary of the Earth Optimism Summit in front of 1,200 in-person attendees and a live-stream audience. A panel of judges named Paw 2017 as one of the winning teams.

“We were a team of undergrads up against professionals in their fields, so I didn’t necessarily go into it thinking we would win,” said Henrik Cox, a rising senior who is a mechanical engineering major and a team member of Paw 2017. “We decided to participate because it would be fun, we’d gain some great experience, and learn about how the conservation industry really works.”

Now, the group – which also includes mechanical engineering major Steven Burcat, economics major Jacob Baca, and UNC-Chapel Hill student and environmental health science major Eliza Harrison – has funding that will allow them to continue testing and building their solar-powered surface skimming device meant to clean up excess algae.

The 3-D model they presented at the competition was about 10 centimeters by 20 centimeters, Cox said, but is totally scalable, and he imagines the smallest model as 1 meter by 2 meters.

Ashley Blawas, a rising senior biomedical engineering major and a team member of Green Eggs and Sam, worked with her team to make a low-cost tracking device that would take advantage of the stalking behavior of the predator species to also track smaller vertebrates by picking up pheromone levels.

Blawas said that both a challenge and positive piece of the competition was the requirement that teams produce a model or prototype of their solutions.

“This requirement forced our team to continually iterate throughout the weekend as our idea was realized, resulting in a more robust conservation tool,” she said. “Our physical representation of the pheromone-tracking system has given us the means by which to share this idea with members of our community and beyond who can enable us to fabricate and test our system in the field.”

Other Green Eggs and Sam included rising seniors Ashley Ericson and Sam Kelly, both mechanical engineering majors; and Carmen Hoyt, a biology and earth & ocean sciences major.

Dr. Alex Dehgan, Chanler Innovator in Residence for the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and founder and CEO of Conservation X Labs, said that he was glad to see a diverse array of proposed solutions from Duke students.

“While conservationists can best define the problems, they don’t hold all the solutions,” Dehgan said. “The need for diversification of the field of conservation science and harnessing the democratization of science and technology requires conservation to evolve. Duke students have been on the leading edge of this transformation, harnessing the university strengths in multidisciplinary, innovative problem oriented thinking, entrepreneurship, and placing knowledge in service to society. The Duke teams that did so well at the Make for the Planet event demonstrated the potential the we have to find solutions for solving conservation grand challenges.  Much as our species has caused these problems, Duke students highlighted that we also have the ingenuity to address them.”

By Katie Jansen, Duke I&E
Photo by Rhonda Gregorio

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