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D.C. Students Vie for NASA Tech Funds

Three students from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District are finalists in a national NASA competition, thanks to a filter they designed to ensure clean drinking water in schools.

The NASA Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge (OPSPARC)  is a youth competition for students in grades 3-12. The event encourages students to use imagination and creativity to create spinoff technology that makes life easier.

On the Banneker team are 11th-graders Bria Snell, India Skinner and Mikayla Sharrieff, who have been selected as one of eight national high school teams. The team, who call themselves “S3 Trio,” are the only East Coast team among the national high school finalist, as well as the only all-female and all-African American team.

“This is not a competition,” Mikayla said. “It’s an opportunity to highlight our talents.”

NASA describes spinoff technology as devices use in day-to-day life. Items such as memory foam, invisible braces, firefighting equipment, artificial limbs, scratch-resistant lenses, aircraft anti-icing systems, shoe insoles, water filters/purification, cochlear implants, satellite television, and long-distance telecommunications were first developed for NASA missions and then reworked to make everyday existence easier.

National winning teams are invited to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for two days of in-depth, behind the scenes, hands-on workshops with scientists and astronauts. Additionally, each winning team receives an award stipend of $4,000, provided by the Foundation for Technology and Privacy Outreach.

To win in their category, S3 Trio requires votes to be submitted from the public by April 30. An individual can vote once every 24 hours. Voting is open to anyone in the U.S. and U.S. territories.

The three girls are varsity cheerleaders who volunteer at the Inclusive Innovation Incubator (In3), the year-old initiative supported by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s tech inclusion initiative, located in the Howard/Shaw community. Over the past year, the three have immersed themselves in learning all aspects of the tech industry, including coding, community problem-solving through design, social networking, entrepreneurship and mobile App development.

The team felt ready to pursue a project to meet NASA’s spinoff technology criteria. They chose to design a community project titled “H2NO-to-H2O,” which seeks to address urban lead issues by engineering a filter that cleans drinking water in schools.

“In older structured homes and buildings, lead pipes have been an issue in the media. In D.C. they’re currently renovating many public schools,” India said. “As a result, we have a mission to be a part of community activism and history in the making. Our water filtration system can help aid in that mission.”

“We are no longer ‘Hidden Figures,'” said team member Bria.

The “H2NO-to-H2O” project design and voting process can be accessed on the NASA website. The S3 Trio Glog, a multimedia poster, describes how the filtration system will work.

In3 founder and CEO Aaron Saunders, who has been coaching the three girls from the beginning, said he sees the far-reaching impact they will have.

“We are extremely excited to see these young talented students take a problem in their community and find an innovative solution,” Saunders said. “Their progress is an example of what In3 envisioned when we opened our doors a year ago.”

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