Solar panels and more garner big prizes for middle-school researchers

Kids get recognition and money for science fair projects and a whole lotta teamwork


Georgia Hutchinson, 13, of Woodside, Calif. (center, holding trophy), beat out 29 other young researchers to win the $25,000 top prize at the 2018 Broadcom MASTERS.

Linda Doane/SSP

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A teen has invented a way to increase the energy collected by solar panels — and help homeowners more quickly pay off the costs of installing the technology. Georgia Hutchinson, 13, presented her results this week here at the Broadcom MASTERS competition. She also tackled a strenuous series of science, math and engineering challenges in a team. And on October 23, she claimed the competition’s top prize. She won an educational award worth $25,000.

Georgia lives in Woodside, Calif. She learned of her win at an awards gala here in Washington on Tuesday evening. “This is really cool, but I’m still really in shock!” she said minutes after getting her trophy.

“I’m thrilled to congratulate Georgia, whose project focused on creating a lower cost solar panel system,” says Maya Ajmera. She is president of Society for Science & the Public. The Society created and runs the Broadcom MASTERS program. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.)

Georgia was one of 30 finalists from 14 states in the eighth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition. MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars. The Samueli Foundation provided Georgia’s winnings. This non-profit organization was created by Broadcom Foundation chair Henry Samueli. It is based in Corona del Mar, Calif.

More than a dozen of the finalists took home a total of more than $100,000 in major awards or funds to attend a science camp of their choice. “The Broadcom Foundation is honored to champion young scientists, engineers and innovators and spur them on to greatness,” says Paula Golden. She is president of the Broadcom Foundation.

Students qualified for the competition on the basis of their middle-school science fair projects. Those projects fall within the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Finalists had to be in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade when they competed in their local science fairs.

But Broadcom MASTERS is much more than a science fair. That’s because this week’s judging of those qualifying projects only accounted for 20 percent or so of a finalist’s score. While in Washington, the finalists are divided into teams. The remainder of their score comes from the creativity and collaboration they display while tackling a series of challenges posed to them and their teammates.

Power to the panels!

In her qualifying project, Georgia developed a way to boost the amount of power that could be gathered by solar panels. She didn’t improve the panels themselves. Instead, she came up with a way to steer the panels with motors so that they track the sun’s motion across the sky.

Solar panels collect the most energy when they are perpendicular to the sun. (That is, the sun’s rays arrive at a 90-degree angle to the panels’ surface.) But the sun doesn’t stay in one place. It moves across the sky during the day. Many solar panels, when they are installed, are aimed in a single direction, often south. This lets the panels collect strong, direct sunlight in the middle of the day. But at other times, such as sunrise and sunset, the panels get little if any light, Georgia explains. At midmorning and midafternoon, the panels do get light, but at a less-direct angle. That means they collect less power than at noon. If the solar panels could tilt themselves to follow the sun as it moved, the teen reasoned, they could collect more power over more of the day.

Georgia came up with her idea early last year. People across the United States were really excited about the upcoming total solar eclipse. Georgia realized that astronomers could precisely track the sun’s motion across the sky. And she decided to build a motorized system that could do the same thing. Her system doesn’t use expensive sensors to monitor the position of the panels and how much light they’re getting. Instead, she developed a computer program that drives motors. Those motors move a solar panel to keep the panel as perpendicular to the sun as possible.

One motor spins around a vertical axis. It helps track the sun’s motion from sunrise in the east to sunset in the west. The other motor rotates around a horizontal axis. Its motion decreases the panel’s tilt as the sun gets higher in the sky in the morning. Later in the day, it increases the panel’s tilt as the sun drops toward the horizon. After the sun sets, the motors swing the panels back to their original position. That leaves them ready for the next sunrise.

By keeping a solar panel more in direct line with the sun, Georgia’s tracker would let a panel collect more solar power because it would be getting direct sunlight for more of the day. That, in turn, could help someone who had solar panels on their home save money on their energy bills. Solar panels are expensive to install. So the more money a homeowner saves, the faster they’d be able to recover the costs of their solar panels. Georgia’s calculations suggest that homeowners who used her steering system could pay off their panels about 40 percent sooner than if their panels didn’t move.

Watch the four top winners of the 2018 Broadcom MASTERS competition explain their projects.

Other award winners

Jack Albright, 14, of Los Altos, Calif., won the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Award for Health Advancement. It is worth $20,000. He developed a technique that could help doctors predict the onset of mild and severe effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Jacqueline Prawira, 13, of Mountain House, Calif., won the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. It is worth $10,000. She explored how cotton, cellulose and other fibers from discarded waste might be used to strengthen plastic.

John Madland, 14, of Salem, Ore., won the Lemelson Award for Invention. It is worth $7,500. Using computer simulations, he and partner Mihir Nitin Joshi, 12, showed how a magnetic shield could be used to protect colonists on the surface of Mars.

Additional finalists took home first-place awards, worth $3,500, or second-place awards, worth $2,500, in each of the STEM fields. They are:


First place: Amara Orth, 14, from Glenwood, Iowa. She studied how the diversity of plants near a beehive influenced the numbers of antimicrobial chemicals in a waxy substance produced by honeybees.

Second place: Janani Kumaran, 14, from Gainesville, Fla. She studied how combining two methods to control an invasive aquatic plant — snails and a chemical that regulates plant growth — worked much better than either method alone.  


First place: Gabriella Lui, 14, from Palatine, Ill. She developed a way to electronically track students in their classrooms. This could help police or other first responders when disaster strikes or in case of emergencies.

Second place: Gary Zhan, 14, from North Logan, Utah. He modified genes, or cellular instructions, in bacteria and boosted their production by 28 percent of a blue pigment that can be used as a dye.


First place: Alice Feng, 13, from San Jose, Calif. She grew various species of mushrooms on different types of nutrients. She then analyzed properties such as their density and their temperature insulation and soundproofing qualities.

Second place: Mihir Nitin Joshi, 12, from Salem, Ore. He, along with partner John Madland, 14, used computer models to show how a magnetic field could be used to protect colonists on Mars.


First place: Espen Slettnes, 13, from Castro Valley, Calif. He studied how mathematical processes in a particular set of dimensions can be extended into higher numbers of dimensions.

Second place: Asmi Kumar, 14, from Milton, Ga. She analyzed publicly available health data of people with autism. By focusing on their heart rates, she developed an early warning system for what she terms “meltdown episodes.”

Two more finalists earned Rising Stars awards. They are Kate Quinn, 12, from Louisville, Ky. and Sriram Bhimaraju, 12, from Cupertino, Calif. Kate studied flatworms to assess how the common weedkiller atrazine might affect the nervous system. Sriram developed an app that, along with sensors mounted on a bow, can help archers better practice their sport. Each will be delegates to the Broadcom MASTERS International event in Phoenix, Ariz., next May. As part of that trip, they will also be an Official Observer at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Intel ISEF is the world’s largest international science fair competition. It is also a Society for Science & the Public program.


About Sid Perkins

Sid Perkins is an award-winning science writer who lives in Crossville, Tenn., with his wife, two dogs and three cats. He enjoys cooking and woodworking, and he really, really wants to get better at golf.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Tech