Teens Compete for Ocean Health XPRIZE

Teens Compete for Ocean Health XPRIZE

By Jon Sung

High school is a busy time to be a kid. When you're not in class or doing homework, you might be playing sports, immersing yourself in an after-school club, or playing your heart out at band rehearsal. If you're a member of Team pHFine Scale out of Carmel, CA, you're on a mission to save the ocean.

Jack Maughan gets to school at 7:20 a.m. for AP Chemistry. For the next eight hours, it's nothing but classes (with a break for lunch, of course). At 3:15pm, there might be a little time for homework before wrestling or water polo practice starts. On a water polo day, he gets home at 8:30pm and sets aside about 15 minutes to eat dinner before homework truly begins. Somewhere between 11:00pm and 1:00am, his head hits the pillow and Jack can finally surrender to sleep.

With a schedule like that, you'd think he’d spend his weekends goofing off—when in fact the opposite is true. Weekends are when friends and Team pHFine Scale members Ethan Kurteff, Benek Robertson, and Bridgett Maughan (Jack’s younger sister) get together to build, test, and perfect their pH sensor. "We generally start at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday," says Jack. The team takes its cues from a corkboard, where tasks that need to be completed by the end of the day or week are posted by Lisa Walder, Team pHFine Scale's project manager (and mom to the Maughans).

"I absolutely love the ocean," Jack says. "I spend pretty much the entire summer there: I surf, boogie board, spear fish, swim, and sit in a lifeguard tower for six hours every day. It's the best place to have fun." Ethan, pHFine Scale's calibration man, claims to be not quite coordinated enough to surf, but is an avid boogie boarder and snorkeler. "It's a magical, relaxing place to be," he says. The rest of the team shares a healthy respect, if not outright love, of the ocean they've spent so much of their lives growing up next to, and the realization that something fundamental about it is changing because of human activity is something they all find sobering.

Ethan Kurteff (left) and Jack Maughan (right) hard at work.

After finding out about the $2M Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE from his father, Thom, who is a software engineer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Jack was determined to enter the competition, and spent an entire summer lifeguarding to earn the money needed to fund the team he was about to start. "I was debating a couple different names," Jack recalls, before settling on pHFine Scale (pronounced "fine scale"). "It's what we want our sensor to be: precise, fine, able to measure down to a .003 variance over the course of a year."

Just being in high school while trying to develop a cutting-edge pH sensor would seem to be an insurmountable task, especially from a time management standpoint, but Jack and his friends choose to see at least part of it as a plus: their AP Chemistry teacher, Mr. Guardino, who they all confirm is "amazing." Without him, Jack says, pHFine Scale wouldn't be around.

According to Jack, the most challenging part is calibrating the sensor, but that's where another advantage comes through: their teamwork. "Even though we all have our assigned parts," he says, "we all work together on each of the projects, we share in each task depending on what we're doing. Ethan's done most of the research on the calibration, and we all put in the effort. It's mind-boggling how difficult it is to calibrate this thing." The team usually gets together on Friday and stays overnight, the better to get cracking in the morning. "There's a lot of food involved," project manager Lisa chuckles, "a lot of creativity, a lot of imagination."

Lisa notes that while keeping everyone on-task and on-schedule can be demanding, she also misses the presence of the third Maughan, her daughter Caroline (now at the University of Montana), who was in charge of design, marketing, and social media. "Since she went to college, it's kind of offset the balance of the team," Lisa says. "It was so refreshing to hear her ideas; I wish she could be here more. As much as we all have fun together, the balance was important as well." Bridgett, the youngest Maughan, has stepped in to fill Caroline's shoes, and is already proving a capable replacement.

Bridgett is not alone in having discovered new things about herself; the competition has given Ethan the confidence to pursue a career in engineering, and he's trying to decide between mechanical and aerospace. "The fact that we've made it this far is incredible," he says. "It's empowering to realize there are all these other teams, and we've made it as far as them." Benek Robertson, for his part, is looking forward to taking AP Environmental Science during his senior year and joining the search for solutions to climate change. "It's good to get your foot in the door on projects like this," he observes, "regardless of how well we ourselves do in this competition, there's a bigger issue we're trying to face here, and I hope that starts getting figured out."

Jack Maughan and Team pHFine Scale’s sensor.

"I've learned what my priorities are," is how Jack sums it up. "I had to balance between water polo, school, and the XPRIZE—had to decide what to do when they all conflicted. My biggest priority was to work on the XPRIZE; that's what needed to happen, needed to get done, even though I wanted to go to water polo, which I love. But it was worth it in the end to work on the XPRIZE instead of all those other activities."

That said, it's nice to get some outside validation, too: on September 24, 2014, pHFine Scale joined the other Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE teams at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for Phase 2 of the tests, where all the sensors went into a control tank of seawater; weeks later, the sensors would be retrieved and their data read to see how well they'd done. Before pHFine Scale's sensor went in the tank, Jack's dad Thom made a friendly wager with him over whether they'd be able to get a good measurement from it—to the tune of $500. That’s not exactly small change to a high school kids who'd spent his savings on science.

The day of reckoning came on December 10, 2014, and according to Lisa, "It was a bit dramatic." Upon retrieval, Team pHFine Scale's sensor appeared to be stone cold dead, not even responding to its wireless charger. Then, Jack noticed some apparent damage to the sensor casing from the clamp used to hold it in place in the tank, which had exposed some of the power circuitry to corrosion. Thinking quickly, he cut the casing open with a Dremel tool and wired power directly to the battery; after a few minutes of charging, they were able to get the data. More than that, Lisa says, "When the calibration was applied and the data was plotted, Thom said he not only saw one good measurement, but it looked like incredibly good measurements for the entire time the sensor was in the test tank—he even said that with data that good, they had a chance to win!" The bet was paid, though with a bit of a wry twist: it was all in $1 bills.

Jack Maughan’s father, Thom, makes good on a $500 bet.

More important, of course, was that the data proved the sensor had lived up to the pHFine Scale name. Jack, says Lisa, had been feeling somewhat intimidated by the other professional and university groups, "and this has really bolstered him and the team."

The next stop for Team pHFine Scale now is Seattle, WA, and the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE coastal trials that begin in February 2015.

Jon Sung is a contributing writer for XPRIZE and copywriting gun-for-hire to startups and ventures all over the San Francisco Bay area. When not wrangling words for business or pleasure, he serves as the captain of the USS Loma Prieta, the hardest-partying Star Trek fan club in San Francisco.

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