Cooking up a Broadcom win

A young engineer used the science fair as an opportunity to build a better microwave

annie ostojic

Annie Ostojic designed a better microwave — one that won’t leave you with cold spots in your food. 

E. Nguyen/SSP

SAN JOSE, Calif.— After more than two years of working to improve the microwave oven, Annie Ostojic knows how to cook up good science. Those efforts have paid off. On October 6, she won a $25,000 educational award for her overall scientific skills, her ability to work with others — oh yeah, and one tasty science fair project.

The 13-year-old from Munster, Ind., designed a better shape for the home microwave oven. With her design, food cooks all the way through, instead of with disgusting cold spots.

Annie joined 29 other finalists at the fifth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition. (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.) This was her second year as a finalist. The teen, a student at Wilbur Wright Middle School and Munster High School, was a finalist in the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS and also participated in the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS International program for middle-school students last May in Pittsburgh, Penn.

These programs were created by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News for Students. The Samueli Foundation, a non-profit organization created by Broadcom founder Henry Samueli, provided Annie’s winnings. Nine other students also took home cash prizes or money to attend science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) summer programs.

Annie poses for pictures with the Samuelis after winning the first place award at the Broadcom MASTERS. E. Nguyen/SSP

Students qualify for the Broadcom MASTERS with a first-place science fair project. But winning at the MASTERS competition requires much more than that project. The finalists must also compete in team challenges and work together to solve problems in subjects ranging from marine biology to computer programming.

Annie’s research project probed how to get rid of those pesky cool spots in your microwave. For last year’s project, she microwaved marshmallows and cheese cubes and watched them with an infrared camera. That let her find the cool spots in her microwave. She then built a small cup that helped to heat food evenly. This year, “I thought it would be more practical to redesign the microwave oven cavity itself,” she says. “I knew there were lots of hot spots in the microwave oven even past the turntable. So I wanted some way to reflect that energy toward the center to cook more evenly.”

The young engineer tried lining the microwave with reflective materials to redirect heat in toward the center of the oven cavity. Aluminum foil worked best, she found. Annie then set out to change the shape of the microwave cavity. She found that by rounding the rectangular cavity, she could effectively concentrate heat toward its center.

Annie has applied for a patent for her new microwave design. (That would make it illegal for others to steal her design.) But she has no plans to stop there. She is already moving on to new projects. “You always have unanswered questions” in research, she says. “No matter what, you’re going to find some sort of new angle that’s going to be interesting.” This encourages you, she says, to “just keep going.”

The teen’s project cooked up a quarter of her score. The rest came from a series of research challenges. The 30 finalists were grouped into five-member teams that competed for three days in challenges held around the San Francisco Bay area of California. Teams identified invertebrates in bay-bottom mud, built bridges and designed their own computers. They also went on tours of Google, Lucasfilm and NASA’s Ames Research Center.

A calculating win

Inspiration for another award-winner’s project came from one of his classmates. “I saw a lot of my fellow students were struggling with the [math] coursework they were given,” says Sebastian Mellen, 14. “I said, ‘maybe I can help you out and build an app for you guys.’” The app, called Mathsuite, built by this student at Mt. Everest Academy in San Diego, Calif., helps students, teachers and even professional scientists with their equations.

Sebastian Mellen cheers at the Broadcom MASTERS. He designed a math app to help his friends and teachers with their calculations. E. Nguyen/SSP
At the MASTERS competition, Mellen garnered second place and the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. He will also take home a $10,000 cash prize. He is still improving his app, adding the ability to load data into the calculations. That may make it more useful for scientists working in remote areas. 

Eight other finalists earned awards in four categories: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The first- and second-place awards come with $3,500 and $2,500, respectively, to help the winner attend the STEM-oriented program of their choice. 

STEM Awards for Science

First place: Maximilian Du, Eagle Hill Middle School, Manlius, N.Y. Max found a new and cheaper way to extract and measure the caffeine in drinks such as coffee and cola.

Second place: Hannah O. Cevasco, 14, Sacred Heart Preparatory School, San Carlos, Calif. Hannah investigated whether manuka honey might help wounds heal. Bees produce the honey from the pollen of manuka trees in New Zealand.

STEM Awards for Technology

First place: Manasa (Hari) Bhimaraju, 11, Kennedy Middle School, Cupertino, Calif. Hari designed and built a computer system to help students learn the periodic table of the elements. She also incorporated sound to aid people who are visually impaired. 

Second place: Anusha Zaman, 14, Glasgow Middle School and Baton Rouge Magnet High School, Baton Rouge, La. Anusha tested how betel leaves, which are chewed in Asia to enhance alertness, changed the activity of cells in the mouth.

STEM Awards for Engineering

First place: Avery P. Clowes, 13, Oak Meadow School, Littleton, Mass. He worked out the best height to generate electricity from falling water, using a device called the Kelvin water dropper.

Second place: Soyoun Choi, 16, Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy, Melbourne, Fla. Raised speaking two languages, Soyoun studied whether being bilingual — speaking two languages fluently — might affect a middle school student’s grades.

STEM Awards for Math

First place: David Yue, 14, Jasper High School, Plano, Texas. David studied how to use two X-rays taken at different angles to make a 3-dimensional representation of a body part.

Second place: Madison A. Toonder, 14, Ponte Vedra High School, St. Augustine, Fla. Madison studied how the tiny particles, called nanoparticles, in sunblock might affect the ability of oysters to filter water.

Working together wins

The Broadcom MASTERS emphasizes that the best research is never done alone but in teams. Two finalists won Rising Star awards for their ability to work well in group challenges: Evelyn Bodoni, 13, a student at Challenge School in Denver, Colo., and Anish Singhani, 13, a student at Diablo Vista Middle School in Danville, Calif.

One of the six five-member teams also received an award for their excellent work as a group. The winning team included Glenn Grimmett, 13, The Weiss School, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Elizabeth Kinsey, 14, Eugene Ashley High School, Wilmington, N.C.; Naya Menezes, 14, Scripps Ranch High School, San Diego, Calif.; Anish Singhani, 13, Diablo Vista Middle School, Danville, Calif.; and David Yue, 14, Jasper High School, Plano, Texas.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on October 13 to correct Annie Ostojic’s previous attendance at Broadcom MASTERS and Broadcom International. She attended Broadcom International in 2015. 

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

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

betel  A vine related to pepper and kava plants. The leaves of the betel plant are chewed as a mild stimulant, mostly in Asia.

bilingual  The ability to speak two languages fluently.

Broadcom MASTERS  Created and run 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.

caffeine  A stimulant, which activates the nervous system and heart. The leaves, seeds and fruits of many plants contain caffeine. In coffee plants and tea bushes, caffeine acts as a natural pesticide. It will kill or harm insects that attempt to dine on the plant. Caffeine is also toxic to some types of plants, bacteria — even frogs and dogs.

equation  In mathematics, the statement that two quantities are equal. In geometry, equations are often used to determine the shape of a curve or surface.

infrared light A type of electromagnetic radiation invisible to the human eye. The name incorporates a Latin term and means “below red.” Infrared light has wavelengths longer than those visible to humans. Other invisible wavelengths include X rays, radio waves and microwaves. It tends to record a heat signature of an object or environment.

invertebrate  An animal lacking a backbone. About 90 percent of animal species are invertebrates.

Kelvin water dropper  A device invented by William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), which uses falling water to create electricity.

marine Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

microwaves  An electromagnetic wave with a wavelength shorter than that of normal radio waves but longer than those of infrared radiation (heat) and of visible light.

nanoparticle  A small particle with dimensions measured in billionths of a meter.

patent  A legal document that gives inventors control over how their inventions — including devices, machines, materials, processes and substances — are made, used and sold for a set period of time. Currently, this is 20 years from the date you first file for the patent. The U.S. government only grants patents to inventions shown to be unique.

periodic table of the elements  A chart (and many variants) that chemists have developed to sort elements into groups with similar characteristics. Most of the different versions of this table that have been developed over the years tend to place the elements in ascending order of their mass.

Society for Science and the Public (or SSP) A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Intel Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

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

stimulant  Something that triggers an action. (in medicine) Drugs that can stimulate the brain, triggering a feeling of more energy and alertness. Caffeine is a mild stimulant that for a short while enhances alertness and helps fight drowsiness. Other stimulants, including some dangerous illegal drugs — such as cocaine — have stronger or longer-lasting effects.

X-ray  A type of radiation analogous to gamma rays, but of somewhat lower energy.