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FRANKLIN - Teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a robotic fish to eat plastic in the sea, you'll solve the world's problem of ocean pollution.

Or, at least, that's the line of thinking a sixth grade team from Ben Franklin Elementary School took when designing a project for Toshiba's ExploraVision contest, and it ended up winning them the regional title.

Last semester, four groups of students in fifth and sixth grade chose to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) during their "iTime," a free period where students can catch up on subjects or pursue others deeper. After five months of work and submitting their projects to judges, three Ben Franklin teams were recognized by Toshiba, with two teams winning honorable mentions in addition to the regional winners.

Using STEM skills, students created scientific solutions to real-world problems, projecting what kind of tools may be able to be invented in the next 20 years. The students tackled complex issues and came up with solutions to ocean pollution, the transmission of diseases, and helping patients with brain damage communicate.

Something fishy

"We started and we all just brainstormed any bad problems that we could think of," explained Sophia Bennett, one of the members of the winning sixth grade team.

Bennett, along with Morgan Weckman, Victor Ignatowski, and Zachary Wied chose to tackle the pollution issue after researching topics related to water. Confronted with photos of birds and seals dying because of their home's pollution and statistics like, "around 9 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year," the group felt convicted to do their best to solve the problem.

Their solution was to build off of technology like the Roomba – a robotic vacuum cleaner – but in the form of a fish.

Using infrared signals, "The OPC" or "Ocean Plastic Clean-Up," would navigate the depths of the ocean collecting plastic. Then, the plastic would be dissolved using the newly-discovered bacteria Ideonella Sakaiensis.

Beyond just STEM

An original invention wasn't the only thing these groups had to come up with. They also had to research their problem and technology related to it, design experiments that could test their solutions, build a mock website describing the product, and compose an 11-page paper.

"There were days when we thought this was so much work, and we never thought we’d get it done," said Zachary Wied.

According to Sharon Hushek, the fifth grade math and science teacher who coached all the teams along with individual mentors, the task combined all kinds of learning skills.

"It's the science, technology, engineering, and math, but also bringing it all together – which is huge – through collaboration, critical thinking, and thinking out of the box," explained Hushek.

"That's what I'm good at," said Rogan Pilkington with a smile, right after his teacher finished "thinking out of the box."

Saving lives

Pilkington, Adrian Kusch, Aniket Divakar, and Rami Hasna developed an invention called "The Microsquito," a tiny mosquito robot that flies around injecting medication to prevent diseases typically transmitted by mosquitoes.

Their goal was to eliminate diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, hopefully saving the one million people who die each year because of those illnesses.

The other fifth grade group also took on the challenge of a health issue.

Fifth graders Katherine Sepersky, Meredith Peters, Elyse Johnson, and Kayla Schuerman took on a project developing an app for patients with aphasia, a communication problem developed due to brain damage. The "iTalk" would connect a chip in the patient's brain to a tablet, which would dictate whatever the patient wanted to communicate.

"(Helping patients with a speech disorder) sounded interesting," said Peters. "After we researched a lot, we decided to help people with that."

The group of girls even met with a brain surgeon and two speech therapists for research.

"They were thinking out of the box and coming up with ideas of what you could learn...about Bluetooth and use it inside a brain," said Hushek.

National recognition

All of the teams were recognized at a special event during the school day March 14,  when a representative from Toshiba came to present them with their awards. For their work, all the students received certificates, a solar-powered globe, and a Toshiba hard drive.

The winning team also received a banner and a plaque denoting their accomplishment, along with a laptop for the students to use for completing their national entry. Moving forward, those sixth graders will continue to work on the project, as they have to develop a few extra items for national judging such as a working website and a prototype.

The national winners will be announced April 28, and the first and second place teams in each division will receive a savings bond of $10,000 and $5,000, respectively, along with a trip to the nation's capital.

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