Kids invent device to prevent flash floods

Lela Nargi

THE WASHINGTON POST – In late May, storms flooded streets in Miami-Dade County in Florida. The floods made cars sink and turned roads into brown rivers.

A team of local middle school students has a plan to stop this ongoing problem.

Alyssa Neuber, Bianca Verri and Jose Pirela are sixth-graders at Downtown Doral Charter Upper School. They designed a device to warn city workers when and where there is a danger of flooding. The team is one of five grand-prize winners of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest. The contest asked for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) solutions to the biggest challenge facing a school community.

“I’ve been living here my entire life, and all of us have encountered problems with flooding,” said Bianca. “We knew that was the problem we were going to tackle.”

Flash flooding can happen when storm drains get plugged up and, especially during hurricanes, overflow into streets. It’s the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States (US).

Sixth-graders Jose Pirela (L) and Ivan Martinez of Downtown Doral Charter Upper School in Florida work with teacher Rebeca Martinez to place a device to detect sediment buildup in a storm drain. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The students’ device uses a laser system called lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging.” The device, if approved by the city government, could be attached to Doral’s 2,575 storm and manhole drains – one device per drain. If a drain gets clogged with sediment, the device could send a computer alert to the city’s stormwater management office. Then the stormwater manager could send someone to clean the drain.

“We had our class help us in the beginning to find information about how we were going to use lidar,” said Jose.

Starting in March, the school was closed, so team meetings went virtual. Luckily, said Bianca, “We already had a prototype device, and we just had to tweak it some more.”

They also had to pitch their idea virtually to contest judges.

Twenty finalist teams were whittled down to the five grand-prize-winning teams.

Each of the five teams won USD100,000 for technology and supplies for their science classrooms. The Doral students plan to continue working with the city after the months they spent on the project.

“We put in a lot of effort and had to trust each other and that each one knew what they were talking about,” said Alyssa.

Figuring out how to build the drain sensor “was overwhelming at the beginning – I’m not an engineer,” said Martinez. “But I learned the kids can actually do this, working together as a team.”