OGDEN — Math comes naturally to St. Joseph Elementary eighth-grader Julien Grijalva, 14, so using vector calculus and linear algebra to program a robot for his science fair project wasn’t a stretch.
It would be for most other people, said his mother Therese Grijalva, a Weber State University economics professor. “I have a PhD in economics and my area is applied mathematics, but he has skills way beyond mine.”
Julien’s talents were recently recognized at the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair, where he took first place in the Engineering: Electrical & Computer Science category (junior division) and received five other junior division awards: Lemelson Early Inventor Prize, Mission Math, Symantec, U.S. Air Force and Broadcom Masters.
For his project, Julien built a robot that could be controlled with an X Box controller. Using Arduino and Adam computer coding and hardware, he wrote a feed forward neural network to allow the robot to detect faces and images.
“Self-driving cars are really fun,” he said of the inspiration for his project. “A fully self-driving car should be able to detect walls and also detect people with multiple different methods to double-check each other. One of those methods should probably be computer vision facial detection, and that’s what my neural network can do.”
Now that the science fair is over, Julien has to disassemble the robot because he borrowed several of the parts from other people, but he is continuing to refine the program he developed so that the robot can not only detect faces but also determine if two facial images match, which would have application in the security industry.
Mercedes Randhahn, 13, also an eighth-grade student at St. Joseph, came up with the idea for her project after the suicide of a 14-year-old friend who used opioids that had not been disposed of properly.
With her project, “Opioid-Like Deactivation,” Mercedes looked at ways opioids could be de-activated using vinegar so that people could dispose of the drugs in their household trash in a way that would not harm the environment.
Because opioids are controlled substances and she was unable to experiment on them, Mercedes used caffeine, what she called her “makeshift opioid,” and a common ingredient in morphine, a naturally occurring opioid, for her experiments. To ensure the bonds of the opioid molecules would remain broken, she used activated carbon.
It was a trying process, she admitted, as many of her early attempts failed. In the end, after 60 trials and several modifications, her efforts were successful.
“I’m pretty determined,” she said of the challenge. “It taught me that if I keep trying, eventually something may work and I can get some progress.”
“I like how you can find a problem and figure out how to solve it and impact the world,” she said of her participation in science fairs.
Judges awarded Mercedes first place in the junior chemistry class, along with junior division awards from Recursion Pharma Improving Human Health, STEM Action Center, the U.S. Navy, junior division and Broadcom Masters.
Julien and Mercedes are the only St. Joseph Elementary students to place at USEF all three years they have entered the fair. Both are planning future careers in the sciences. Julien hopes to be a professor of theoretical physics or pure math, while Mercedes would like to pursue a career in chemical engineering.
“They’re both fantastic; they really make me look good,” their science teacher Walker Cornwell said of the two friends. “They have so much drive and motivation.”
Cornwell said he encourages his students to choose projects in areas where they already have an interest. That way, “that passion will really drive and propel them through any roadblocks they might encounter.”
Julien and Mercedes have followed that directive and because of that, “they are able to apply themselves on a level that’s absolutely astonishing,” he said.