A group of Los Angeles high school students and their project on improving LA River water quality bested thousands of other schools nationwide, winning more than $100,000 in prizes.
Franklin High School teacher Jomel Villamil and his advanced placement environmental science students entered Samsung’s Solve For Tomorrow contest with a video about urban runoff and its contamination of the LA River.
“This project is to promote awareness for everyone that water is essential,” student Grace Punzalas, 17, said. “It could be an inspiration for everyone to conserve water and take care of our natural resources.”
The video ultimately received more than 80,000 online votes, making it the Community Choice Award winner.
“It’s a great feeling to have that support in your community, and whether it’s for a video or anything, you know they are there for you,” student Arnoldas Geidreitis, 16, said.
Villamil saw the contest while he was browsing online and said it was a “no-brainer” to get two of his classes -- about 60 students -- involved.
”I thought it was great we were going to participate in something like this, because the LA River’s water is not the best quality,” Geidreitis said. “It’s good we could put out this message to people to let them know what’s going on and how to change.”
The students installed basin catch screens in the river to collect trash and filter stormwater before it entered the aquifers. Their water tests showed high bacteria, nitrate and phosphate levels.
The students then pitched a three-step solution: to install and maintain catch basin screens to reduce trash and prevent entry of pollutants; contain, filter and reintroduce stormwater to recharge aquifers; and to educate their community on environmental sustainability.
“We’ve been doing water testing for years, so it’s already in the curriculum,” Villamil said. “We’ve been focusing on water quality, so why not submit our project for consideration?”
He was continuously surprised as the project soared to the top.
“Words can’t express how much gratitude I want to extend to the community,” Villamil said. “This honor belongs not just to Franklin but to every person who made us their favorite video.”
More than 1,600 schools entered the contest that kicked off in September, and 75 classrooms -- 25 each from the three categories of rural, suburban and urban -- were selected as semifinalists.
Those 75 semifinalists received Adobe editing software, a laptop and a Samsung camcorder to create videos to be voted on by a Samsung panel. The group was narrowed down to 15 finalists, who were guaranteed $40,000. The public then voted on the final 15 videos.
Franklin High School's victory was announced March 11.
The Solve For Tomorrow contest has awarded 150 schools a total of more than $3 million in technology since its creation in 2010 for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.
“We’re really trying to make STEM fun for students by making it relatable in their community,” Solve for Tomorrow’s program manager Bree Falato said. “We hope we raise the enthusiasm level by bringing in the latest technology, and we hope it sparks an interest in learning.”
Samsung has been working on education outreach since 2004 and launched the Solve For Tomorrow contest in a partnership with DirecTV and Adobe in 2010.
The company asked the students, “How can STEM help improve the environment in your community?” Their response was award-winning.
The school will receive $100,000 worth of technology from Samsung, Adobe and DirecTV; a cash grant of $7,000 from DirecTV; and licensing for Adobe Premiere software.
Once awarded, the school has full discretion of how the prizes are used. The total package’s retail value is $110,000.
Villamil and two students will join four other winning schools at the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., on April 17.
“We would need political backing,” Villamil said of continuing the water filtering of the LA River. “This trip includes a trip to Capitol Hill, so maybe the two students who will go with me on the trip will push to get support for this.”
Geidreitis and Punzalas were set to accompany Villamil on the trip, but Punzalas will be competing in another science competition during that time. Villamil will select another student to bring in her place.