Marist Student Participates in White House Science Fair

Freshman Si Ya “Wendy” Ni Presents Semi-Automatic Subway Track Cleaner

In April 2016, President Barack Obama hosted his final White House Science Fair, an annual event that began in 2010 as part of his Educate to Innovate initiative. The fair showcases the work of young students with a desire to excel in science and mathematics. There were over 130 students in attendance to display their work, including Marist student Si Ya “Wendy” Ni.

Marist student participates in White House Science Fair As a first-generation college student whose parents immigrated to New York City from China, Ni has found challenges when it comes to excelling in school. “It can be a little hard because there isn’t anyone in my family that I can ask questions about college to, like which college I should go to or which classes I should take,” she said. “Still, my mother has been very supportive of my choices.”

Ni attended high school at Baruch College Campus High School in New York City, where she began her engineering project. She found herself drawn to science and mathematics because she liked how both subjects have exact answers unlike literature “where there are many interpretations for one work.” She continued, “I do well in those (science and math) classes so I like it even more.”

Ni was part of a team of 11 members who applied for and received the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam grant with their proposal of a semi-automatic vacuum cleaner. The Lemelson-MIT program is a program that inspires young students like Ni and her team to solve real world problems. The teams are comprised of students, educators, and mentors that receive up to $10,000 to invent technological solutions to real-world problems.

Ni’s team started building their quarter scale prototype when they were seniors in high school. They presented their vacuum at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT)’s EurekaFest. According to MIT, “EurekaFest is a multi-day celebration designed to empower a legacy of inventors through activities that inspire youth, honor role models, and encourage creativity and problem-solving.” This year, a team of 13 underclassmen continued improving upon Ni and her team’s machine.

The vacuum was designed for cleaning up the subway tracks of New York City. According to the Lemelson-MIT website, the device attaches to an existing flat bed car of a work train. The device is semi-automatic using light and ultrasonic sensors and four pneumatic cylinders.

Putting together the project took a lot of time and effort, according to Ni. The team and their two teachers, Dr. Jaffe and Ms. Kwan, dedicated their free time after school and on weekends to work on the prototype. “Luckily, we also got many mentors, especially two from Con Edison, that taught us about building machines and presenting to businesses,” Ni explained.

When it came time to displaying her work at the White House Science Fair, Ni describes her emotions as a mixture of nervousness and excitement. “Although I presented the vacuum to big crowds many times before, the White House and the people there were different,” she said. Only three people from both her team and the underclassmen team were able to go and she was one of them. The three of them had to work closely together and quickly to set up the vacuum, answer questions from the press, and present at the White House.

Several news outlets interviewed Ni, including the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and CNN. Ni was also given the opportunity to speak with both Bill Nye the Science Guy and President Obama, among other important figures who attended the fair.

Ni credits part of this success to the skills that she has accrued at Marist during her freshman year. She has learned to code in HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Java. “Besides coding, I have also learned how to think creatively,” she said. “If my code doesn’t work, I should not only try to fix it but also think of alternative ways to code it.”

Because Ni’s work began in high school before she started at Marist, there was no faculty member directly involved in assisting her in her work. However, she does credit several Marist faculty members for being excellent mentors to her, specifically her supervisor Evan Menist and Professor Daniel Zhang. Additionally, several upperclassmen helped her greatly during her first year of college.

Since the science fair concluded, Ni’s goals are now focused on her schoolwork and applying to work for the IBM Joint Study at Marist. Eventually, she would like to do software development in a company like IBM, Google, or Amazon. 

Written by Adriana Belmonte '17

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