When Jack Maughan first told his friends Ethan Kurteff and Benek Robertson about the Wendy Schmitt Ocean Health XPrize, they had kind of a typical teen reaction. “Jack walks up to us and is like, 'we can win $750,000' and that excited me,” says Ethan Kurteff with a laugh.
This XPrize competition aims to help solve ocean acidification, which happens when the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, and the seawater’s pH level drops.
There are two $1-million prizes ($750,000 for first place, $250,000 for second place). So one prize is for the team that makes the most accurate ocean pH sensor, and one for the team that makes the most affordable.
It’s enough money to light up most people’s eyes, but what’s not typical about these teens is when they heard about the competition, they decided to enter. Benek Robertson says building an ocean pH sensor was a culmination of all the things they are learning at Carmel High.
“We’re all members of the robotics team. Ethan and Jack are in AP chem students. They’re learning a lot about pH. I’m also learning a lot in honors chemistry about that. It’s really great to see real life applications for the things we are working really hard on in school every day,” says Robertson
So they teamed up with Jack Maughan’s sisters, Bridgett and Caroline, and formed Team pHFine Scale.
“It was definitely running to my mentors in my life because I had no idea how to begin. So, I talked to my science teachers, I talked to my robotics instructor. My Dad was a big time mentor in starting the process,” says Caroline Maughan, now a student at the University of Montana.
For the Maughans it became a bit of a family affair. Their dad is a software engineer at MBARI, The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. He helped with the brainstorming and their mom, Lisa Walder, became the team’s project manager.
She handles logistics, like lining up insurance and signing competitor agreements. “With the XPrize, there’s so many details that need to be ironed out before you can truly make the competition,” says Walder.
The end result: out of 77 teams, Team pHFine Scale was one of 18 to make it to the three month lab trials at MBARI in Moss Landing. There their sensor performed well enough in a controlled environment that they’re moving on to the next phase where it will be tested in the ocean off the coast of Seattle.
“I feel very confident. Looking at our data sets, I feel like our pH sensor is rock solid and we’ll do very well,” says Jack Maughan.
They’re competing in the affordability category against teams from around the world.
“It’s still daunting when we go up there, and there’s these people who have been working at it for 40 years, and they have a bunch of research money. And we go up and present right after them, and we’re, ‘uh, we scrounged up some money over the summer and we’re in high school’,” says Kurteff.
One of those teams comes from their own backyard. MBARI Senior Scientist Ken Johnson is on Team DuraFET which has three sensors in the competition.
“It’s a little bit weird in the sense here we are professional sensor developers and the high school kids are coming along and keeping right up with us,” says Johnson.
While they’re competitors, Johnson says they’re supportive of the teens on Team pHFine Scale. “It’s just cool that these high school students are building sensors and it’s sort of like we are looking at the future in real time,” says Johnson.
And the teens say being in this competition has them thinking about future generations and protecting the ocean for them.
“Well of course it started with the money because we’re young, money is awesome, but it kind of over time, turned into something a bit bigger because we’ve all grown up in the ocean, including my Mom. So our hearts are very close to the ocean,” says Bridgett Maughan, the youngest member of the team at 14 and a student at Big Sur Charter School.
While winning money may no longer be the motivation, the teens do in fact need money to stay in the competition. They’ve had to pay fees, buy parts and now need to get their team to Seattle. You can find their online fundraising campaign here.