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Tackling lanternflies and blind spots in cars, Philly-area girls win national science awards

Alaina Gassler of West Grove won $25,000 for her project. Rachel Bergey of Harleysville earned $10,000.

Alaina Gassler, 14, of West Grove, Pa., won the $25,000 top prize in the Broadcom MASTERS national science competition for middle school students. She designed and built a system to eliminate blind spots in cars, rigging up a webcam and a digital projector to her family's Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Alaina Gassler, 14, of West Grove, Pa., won the $25,000 top prize in the Broadcom MASTERS national science competition for middle school students. She designed and built a system to eliminate blind spots in cars, rigging up a webcam and a digital projector to her family's Jeep Grand Cherokee.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

When her mother had trouble seeing out of the passenger side of the family’s Jeep Grand Cherokee, Alaina Gassler thought: science-fair project! But the Chester County teenager tinkered for hours with a miniature camera and other gadgetry, and the car’s “blind spot” stubbornly remained.

Fifty miles away, another young science whiz could relate. Seeking to thwart the invasive pests called spotted lanternflies, Rachel Bergey had wrapped maple trees in tinfoil on her family’s Montgomery County farm. Yet to her dismay, some of the insects simply crawled beneath the protective covering.

The two girls are not frustrated anymore. They won national acclaim in October at the Broadcom MASTERS science competition for middle-school students, Gassler with the top $25,000 prize and Bergey claiming one of four $10,000 awards.

Now in ninth grade, the two 14-year-olds first met in April when they entered their projects at the Delaware Valley Science Fair. On that occasion, the results were reversed — Bergey earning the gold medal and Gassler the silver.

Bergey, a home-schooled student who lives in Harleysville, said she was happy to trade places with her electronics-minded counterpart.

“She is awesome,” she said of Gassler, who lives in West Grove and attends Avon Grove Charter School. “I never really thought it would get this far.”

Close to 80,000 students competed in the spring in regional science fairs such as Delaware Valley’s, which covers Southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. Those who placed in a regional fair were invited to apply to the national competition, which is run by the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public and sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation.

Thirty finalists went to Washington, D.C., in October, presenting their projects and also engaging in team competitions, the results from which accounted for more than half of students’ final scores.

Gassler and Bergey said one of the best parts of the experience was meeting their science-savvy peers, discussing their successes and, as happens so often in science, their frustrations.

’Just more windshield’

Gassler’s blind-spot solution was simple enough in concept. She figured she could mount a webcam on the outside of the stout metal support that was blocking her mom’s view — the pillar on the passenger side of the windshield.

The image would be transmitted inside the car to a projector, which would beam the image onto the interior surface of the pillar. The driver could glance at the pillar and see what was hidden behind it, almost as if it were invisible.

Problems arose almost from the start. Upon mounting the camera and projector with suction cups, connecting the two devices via laptop, she discovered that the projected image was too large.

Lots of tinkering ensued. Using a 3D-printer, she made a new part that enabled her to better adjust the zoom function. But there was another problem: The projected image lagged behind real life by several seconds, rendering it useless.

She asked her father, Paul, a mechanical and materials engineer, to help her find a software fix. He suggested running the video feed through PowerPoint, but that did not work.

The teenager finally found the answer herself, in the very software that came with the camera, and bingo! The image lined up perfectly on the pillar, allowing her mother, Meagan, to see “through” it.

“It was pretty much like it was not there,” the young inventor said. “There was just more windshield.”

A video of the device in action has gone viral, drawing close to four million views.

The device has since been disassembled, and the family has sold the car, but Gassler said the key was demonstrating that the idea was feasible. She said there is no reason the concept could not be applied to the rear pillars in a car; she chose to start with the front one only because there was more room to experiment.

Critters done in by their own instincts

Bergey had plenty of false starts as well. Her project began when she was climbing a maple tree at the family farm, noticing grayish splotches on the bark. She later learned that they were masses of lanternfly eggs and that the insects were damaging trees by the thousands.

From what she could tell, there were three options: Cut down infested trees, spray them, or wrap them in some sort of sticky tape. She rejected options one and two, and soon found that number three was unworkable. Tape trapped the insects, but it needed to be replaced every few days — an insurmountable task on a farm with 80 maples.

Then she tried wrapping trees in tinfoil, as others have done, but she found insects sometimes crawled beneath it.

“It seemed a little hopeless,” she said.

Bergey turned it into a science-fair project with a bit of guidance from Lisa Reichley, a local middle-school science teacher who had spoken to a group of area families using the same home-school curriculum.

The teenager’s chief innovation was making use of the insects’ knack for crawling upward through the accidental gaps beneath the tinfoil. She decided to create such gaps on purpose, fashioning tunnels beneath the metallic wrapping to direct the bugs into netting that she then placed above.

“I wanted to use that natural instinct against them,” she said.

Bergey proceeded to compare the results of four methods: yellow sticky tape; a commercial trap designed for gypsy moths; and two versions of the tin foil-and-netting contraption. (In one version, she painted white latex paint around the trunk, having read that farmers sometimes use that trick to repel boring insects. The other version was paint-free.)

The tinfoil-and-netting approach worked best, generally trapping more lanternflies but catching few, if any, other types of insects that could be beneficial. (The addition of latex paint did not seem to help.) What’s more, once the bugs died inside the netting, it could simply be emptied and reused, unlike the sticky tape.

Bergey’s parents do not have a science background, but they were sold on the idea of her entering the Delaware Valley Science Fair after learning from Reichley that a big part of the project was presenting her results.

“We thought it would be great for her to learn public-speaking skills,” said her mother, Rachelle.

The prize money must be used for educational expenses. That can include saving for college or summer programs, as well costs associated with high school.

Maybe seed money for a future science project? After all, the Society for Science & the Public runs national competitions at the high school level, too, as Gassler knows. Her older brother, Carter, competed in one earlier this year with his invention of a robotic centipede.