Veronika Escaja-Heiss and Trevor Houchens

Escaja-Heiss and Houchens Attend International Science Fair

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Thursday June 08, 2017

The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Millions of students worldwide compete in regional and state fairs for a chance to attend ISEF. This year, it was held May 14 through 19 in Los Angeles, California. Selected to attend this prestigious competition were two South Burlington High School (SBHS) students, Veronika Escaja-Heiss and Trevor Houchens, whose independent research projects won recognition, and the honor of attending ISEF, at this year’s Vermont Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Fair held in April at Norwich University. Escaja-Heiss and Houchens recently returned from Los Angeles where they showcased their talents alongside more than 1,700 students from around the world.

Escaja-Heiss, an SBHS sophomore, says her independent research topic, “The Effects of Growing Up Multilingual on Cognitive Thinking,” was inspired by personal experience. “I grew up trilingual, learning Spanish, German, and English simultaneously. As I got older, I noticed some benefits to this and wanted to study this specific topic in depth.” Escaja-Heiss spent first grade in Spain, noting, “It opened up my eyes to the problem that the United States is not on the same learning curve as other countries as it does not have a mandate, whatsoever, to teach kids a secondary language in school.” She says knowing multiple languages would be valuable for all students, adding that the effort would “also embrace diversity, especially in the heated political climate.”

Escaja-Heiss described her experience at the Intel ISEF as “absolutely inspiring and breathtaking.” In particular, she notes, “The most magnificent part was simply meeting all of these young motivated scientists from all around the world and hearing about how they are taking steps forward to make our world a better place.” In addition, she had discussions with Nobel Prize winners and college professors, who according to Escaja-Heiss, “Helped me see science through a new lens.”

The young scientist’s passion is readily apparent. She reports, “Further research on growing up multilingual is most definitely in the future for me. Most specifically, I would like to go more on the neurological route and work to understand how growing up in this unique manner shapes an individual.”

According to the National Science Board report “Science and Engineering Indicators 2017,” women remain underrepresented in the science workforce. When asked about this, Escaja-Heiss thoughtfully responds, “Growing up as an active feminist, I have continuously pushed myself to make as big of a mark in this world as I possibly can.” With a mission to make a difference, she says, “Science is a field of discovery and innovation that bring the globe to a better understanding of who and where we are, and having women get their names up there is extremely important.” Not one to pass the responsibility onto another, Escaja-Heiss adds, “Now more than ever we need to carve our names in the history books especially through science; personally it would be a shame for me not to get out and try for exactly that.”

For Houchens, the inspiration for his project, “Maze Solving Optimization Through Genetic Programming,” came from his AP Biology class at SBHS when they discussed a theory of human evolution. He says, “It is hypothesized that as humans were evolving, their environment was constantly changing and intelligence became a trait that was selected because it made us well adapted to all environments. I decided to see if I could mimic this intelligence by evolving a program to be good at solving mazes even when constantly faced with a new maze.”

Houchens’ project determines whether evolutionary algorithms could be used to make a program more efficient at solving mazes. “To do this, I made a program capable of moving through a virtual maze and gave it a genome that affected its function. By testing a population of programs on randomly generated mazes and selecting the most efficient ones to pass their genetic information to the next generation, I evolved programs that were more efficient at solving mazes.” He reports that in the future this technology could be utilized in programs like autonomous navigation, adding, “Autonomous robots face many real world mazes such as forests or the interior of buildings and evolving a navigation program for these types of obstacles could make them more efficient at traveling.”

In his graduating year at SBHS, while Houchens noted the independent nature of his project, he named SBHS teachers Theresa Akerley, Stephen Barner, and Nathaniel Moore for being instrumental in their support. The senior plans to attend Brown University next fall to study computer science with an end goal to become a software developer or tech entrepreneur. Regarding the research that brought him to ISEF, if he chooses to continue the work, he says, “I will be trying to simulate real world terrain, like a forest, on my computer so that I can evolve a program that will be able to navigate the real world. The next step after this would be incorporating the program into a physical robot.”

With winning research and impressive goals, both Escaja-Heiss and Houchens are not all work and no play. While in Los Angeles, the two had the opportunity to see the sights, including the iconic Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica Pier, and Universal Studios.

Meanwhile, both are back in Vermont finishing their school year at SBHS. Escaja-Heiss leaves with this thought, “If you have a question about the world or a solution to a problem, get out there and pursue it, because you have no idea what you may discover.”

SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper