Student Voices

Curiosity, Creativity and STEM Can Solve Real-World Problems

My passion for STEM has been driven by curiosity, creativity and a desire to improve the world we live in. I love that STEM provides a way to solve problems and improve lives – it’s the inspiration behind my latest invention, a portable Total Suspended Solids (TSS) device that detects invisible particles in water to monitor water quality and contamination levels.

I had the opportunity to bring my invention to the next level during the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a competition hosted by 3M and Discovery Education, and hope my experience helps encourage other students to pursue their own passion for STEM.

Thinking out-of-the box

In elementary school, one of my favorite books was What If? By Randall Munroe, which uses science and math to explore out-of-the-box, absurd “what if” scenarios. While I didn’t always understand the more technical concepts, it was fascinating to see investigative inquiry play out. Books like What If? kickstarted my passion for STEM, which has continued to grow over the years.

Whether it’s an article about the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines or NASA’s Perseverance, reading helps fuel my curiosity and interest in STEM. I also participate in many STEM extracurriculars, like FIRST LEGO League and MATHCOUNTS at school. Connecting with other people who are passionate about STEM is a great way to learn and an excellent opportunity to collaborate.

Having the opportunity to discuss my projects and ideas with peers and STEM experts, like my 3M mentor Dr. Jonah Shaver, has kept me encouraged and inspired. I looked forward to sharing my progress with Dr. Shaver during a virtual meeting each week, while he showed me the fresh bread he just baked or the wild turkeys that seem to love hanging out in his backyard.

Solving problems through STEM

I believe that young people, with the right guidance, have the drive and passion to make a big impact on the world. I was inspired to create my TSS device after discovering the water quality challenges so many countries face.

While boiling water can kill pathogens, there are still heavy metals and other pollutants, like microplastics, that remain. I’ve focused much of my research on microplastics because of their unknown health impacts.

Microplastics adhere to toxins (such as lead) extremely easily, and also act as a vehicle for pathogens to enter our bodies. Studies predict that 90 percent of our drinking water and tap water could contain microplastics, and people are beginning to realize the dangers this might pose.

Current solutions used to detect TSS, like microplastics, are expensive and time consuming. My portable design is powered by a Raspberry Pi and uses a laser to shine light into the water at a 90-degree angle to illuminate particles, view them under a microscope and capture images. Next, an image processing algorithm I developed is used to convert the images into a histogram that shows particle size distribution.

My Young Scientist Challenge entry can be used to detect particles as small as 0.1 microns and concentrations as low as 0.1 PPM in under ten seconds. The best part? My device was built for under sixty dollars using items purchased from Amazon.

By July 2021, California will adopt a standard methodology for defining microplastics in drinking water and setting health-based testing methods for water debris. I hope my invention will contribute to this initiative and lead to cleaner water for everyone.

Pursue your passion

My advice for the students who are intimidated by math and science? Don’t be! Stay open minded and give it a try. While it’s easy to assume that scientific research requires a professional lab setting, complete with micropipettes and expensive microscopes, that’s not the case. My Young Scientist Challenge invention was built in my garage, using materials like LEGO bricks, cookie tins and old tiramisu containers.

When you’re working on a STEM assignment, activity or invention, be bold and don’t be afraid to ask for help. As long as you are passionate about your work, others are more than willing to offer advice.

A skill that’s helped me connect with STEM experts is cold emailing. Through cold emails, I’ve successfully reached out to professionals who helped shape my Young Scientist Challenge design.

Infinite problems, infinite solutions

Participating in the Young Scientist Challenge was an exciting, unforgettable opportunity that will stay with me forever. I encourage other students to use their curiosity and creativity to think up their own solutions to the real-world issues they encounter. The guidance and support of teachers and STEM experts goes a long way. Together, we can make a positive difference through STEM.

About the Author

Kyle Tianshi is on Twitter at KTianshi.