2019 Capstone Winners

Meet our 2019 Student Grant Winners!

This past summer, high school students from across the globe gathered at top U.S. universities to examine issues impacting the future of our world—and to offer their solutions for overcoming some of the planet’s most pressing problems. The workshops—and the ideas that came out of them—were nothing short of inspiring! Using the skills they learned from their National Geographic Experts and working under the guidance of the workshop Expedition Leaders, the students developed and presented their proposals for projects they could implement in their own communities. While all of the students wowed us, the changemakers featured below really caught the attention of our judges—and returned home with seed money to turn their research ideas into reality.

Aisha Mubarak

Capstone Project: Sprinkler System with an Automated Soil Moisture Sensor

Water shortages are a common issue in Aisha’s community in Saudi Arabia, so her plan is to develop an automated system to reduce water waste in sprinkler systems. Using a moisture level sensor in the soil, integrated with a weather API component, Aisha’s device will ensure that an area is watered only when necessary, conserving precious water resources in her arid country.

  • How did you develop the idea for your grant project?
    I wanted to focus my attention on a problem that I’ve seen in my own community. I live in Saudi Arabia, where water is scarce, and I wanted to take a look at the efficiency of water usage there to determine how we could conserve this important resource.
  • How did participating in this workshop impact the way you see the world?
    I’ve always been both interested and aware of the impact people can have on the environment, but it wasn’t until I participated in this program that I understood that even at 16 years old, as a high schooler, I could make a difference. With this grant, I can help create a positive change in the world.
  • Why do you think it’s important for high school students to give back to their communities?
    I believe that what goes around comes around. Your investment in creating positive change has a ripple effect on the people around you, helping to educate and inspire. Giving back to your community also builds a sense of responsibility for your choices and actions, and knowing that you are capable of making a difference helps grow your self-confidence.

Bridget Sippel

Capstone Project: Children’s Book for Institutional Living

Volunteering weekly at an institutional living facility for children taught Bridget the importance of representation and inclusivity. While most children’s books depict kids growing up in traditional homes, Bridget realized that the children she worked with could not relate to these stories. Her goal is to create a children’s book that illustrates life from the perspective of young people living in orphanages and foster homes, full of objects and routines that these children can relate to, and allowing them to better understand their own situations.

  • How did you develop the idea for your grant project?
    In my hometown, I volunteer weekly at a childcare center where children are awaiting adoption or reunification with their biological parents, and I often find myself reading picture books to the kids. Typically, these picture books depict scenarios from traditional households and feature situations that are worlds away from those that the children in institutional care have come to experience. I wanted to give these children books that they’d better be able to identify with and relate to.
  • How did participating in the workshop impact the way you see the world?
    This program advanced my understanding of the art of visual storytelling, and I learned what it means to create photographs that have meaning and tell a story that goes beyond the image. Visiting National Geographic headquarters took me behind the scenes of so many amazing photos, videos, and magazine articles, and gave me insight into a greater global perspective. I now have renewed motivation for my own storytelling.
  • What has been your greatest adventure so far in life?
    I traveled on a school trip this year to a rural village in the mountains of Nepal, where I disconnected from technology and connected with locals to learn about their way of life. The most impactful part of the trip was meeting with students from a secondary school and uniting over games, music, and dance despite the language barrier between us. Being exposed to a whole new culture was challenging, but it opened my eyes to new perspectives and became the greatest adventure of my life so far.

Leeya Tudek

Capstone Project: Let’s Talk about “The Talk”

Leeya’s project aims to introduce “the talk” to young teens in a sensitive, intelligent, and respectful way. When young people are navigating physical and emotional changes, sex ed classes sometimes tend to fall short, and the information they receive from peers, the media, and the Internet may lend to confusion. Leeya wants to use the stories and experiences of older teens to create a short film that can be worked into health class curricula for younger teens, inspiring nuanced conversations to help them accept themselves and one another during this challenging phase of their lives.

  • How did you develop the idea for your grant project?
    I started with what I knew. Through middle school and high school, my fellow students did not always treat each other with the respect they deserved. I believe that a healthy community is one that understands and appreciates every individual’s experiences and voice, and the curious child in me questioned where things were going wrong in my own community. I decided that I wanted to inspire young teens to treat each other well, and I thought that expanding on early social education was the best place to do it.
  • How did participating in the workshop impact the way you see the world?
    Before the program in D.C., I had not considered myself to be a changemaker on a large scale. Like a lot of people my age, I wanted to make a positive contribution to the world, but I didn’t know where to start. At National Geographic headquarters, we were tasked with making a concrete plan for our goals, and learning how to spark a change was incredibly empowering. Now, I feel I have the courage to face issues that seemed too big to tackle before.
  • What inspires you?
    I am inspired by my older sisters—two powerhouses who are constantly challenging the norm. One is finishing her degree while building a home with her own hands, and the other is fearlessly turning away from the traditional college track to travel around the world and find her own meaning to life. They are both the most brilliant and hardworking people that I know. With the two of them as my role models, I have had the strength to embrace my individuality, realize my own potential, and raise the standards I’ve set for myself within our society.

Mikaela Tannert

Capstone Project: Portable Magnetic Cooler

In Peru, many agricultural regions are remote and have limited access to electricity, and the long journey that crops make from farms into market towns often causes food to spoil. Mikaela’s solution to this type of food waste in her country is a portable, carbon fiber cooler that uses powerful magnets to reduce the temperature around the cooler. Utilizing this kind of storage, crops could last longer, less food would be wasted, and more people could be fed.

  • How did you develop the idea for your grant project?
    The idea came to me in 2017, when I realized how much room there is for improvement in the way we transport crops. But it wasn’t until I participated in the MIT program that I was able to give traction to it. Learning to use creativity to bend the rules that apply to existing technology allowed me to play with the idea of using magnets for magnetic refrigeration, and that’s when this idea really came to life.
  • How did participating in the workshop impact the way you see the world?
    In this program, I learned how important it is to look at existing technologies from a new point of view. We learned not how to invent things, but how to use what’s already available to us in different ways; at one point, we even built a satellite out of simple materials like cameras and balloons. I learned that there is inspiration and opportunity everywhere around us, and that all you have to do is to look at the world with an open mind in order to unleash your creativity.
  • Where do you hope to be five and ten years from now?
    I hope that I’ll be finishing my geology degree, going on lots of adventures, and have a lot of cats! I would also like to travel more around Peru, and gain a deeper understanding of the country I’ve spent my whole life in. I hope to meet a lot of new people as I travel, and learn different perspectives on the world from their experiences.

Ryan Teng

Capstone Project: E-Jacket

Biking has been increasing in popularity as a means of urban commuting—but the associated risks have been on the rise as well. Owing to unpredictable road conditions, poor visibility, and distracted drivers, bicyclists are hit by motorists every single day. As an avid biker himself, Ryan’s idea is to create a wearable device incorporating a variety of features that address the risks of riding and increase the safety of bicyclists on the road.

  • How did you develop the idea for your grant project?
    I love to bike, but I also have to be extremely cautious about my safety and the safety of those around me when I’m biking. In 2018 alone, 857 bicyclists were killed in traffic accidents in the United States, with most of the accidents taking place between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. The alarming rate of casualties inspired me to create a product that can help protect bicyclists so we can enjoy our hobby safely.
  • How did participating in the workshop impact the way you see the world?
    The program helped me understand that I can make a change in this world. Through following my passion for engineering, I discovered that I could design a product to solve an important issue that impacted me and other people. Working in groups also allowed me to team up with others and power through any issues that came up during the course of our work.
  • What has been your greatest adventure so far in life?
    My greatest adventure has been launching and running my own nonprofit company, ColorBreak. I was motivated to start this nonprofit to raise money for a children’s hospital after they saved my brother’s life. ColorBreak sells t-shirts, and the money raised helps to keep the hospital running. Managing the business has had its challenges from the beginning, but with the right people on the team, we’ve been able to make it work.