(From left) Levi Purdy, Kyle Ruotsalainen, John Dunlop and Anna McDonald, standing in the lab they use at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, will be going to Italy in July to participate in the Europa Challenge. Julie Herrmann/Kodiak Daily Mirror

A team from Kodiak High School won the top prize in an international competition with their research into earthquake activity.

The four-student team entered the NASA World Wind Europa Challenge, the only high school team in the university and professional competition.

John Dunlop, Anna McDonald, Levi Purdy and Kyle Ruotsalainen headed to Italy earlier this month with Trillium Learning director Ron Fortunato to present their research.

Since last fall, high school students have been studying data collected up to and during earthquakes relayed to them from a sensor on top of the high school and a sensor in Old Harbor as a science project provided to the Kodiak Island Borough School District by Trillium Learning.

The data that the students collect are then transmitted to the NASA Ames Research Center.

Ultimately, NASA hopes to see patterns in the activity the sensors pick up prior to earthquakes, so that temblors can someday be predicted.

Last spring, the KHS students decided two sensors weren’t enough and began building their own to install around Kodiak.

That got the attention of NASA, which invited the team to enter the Europa Challenge, said Fortunato in an interview prior to the trip to Italy.

“We were all very nervous, and we were not expecting much,” McDonald said. “We thought we would go and present our research, we’d get maybe a ‘good job’ from everybody and then go home.”

But to their surprise, the students received first place.

McDonald said the third- and second-place winners were announced and then Patrick Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center began talking about a unique team.

“He said we were the first high school team to ever enter the competition or even be part of the conference,” McDonald said. “All of us were called up on stage, and we thought he was saying we did a good job, and then he gave us the trophy and we were like, ‘What? We won?”

In the weeks leading up to the competition, the students put in lots of hours to make sure their entry was as good as it could be. They’ve taken a break since the competition, but are already excited for next year.

“This has definitely made us fired up,” McDonald said. “We want to keep pushing forward and making a great system. Hopefully we’ll enter next year with an even better project.”

According to a school district news release, the Kodiak team received perfect scores of 100 from two of the judges — a rare performance at the Europa Challenge — and high marks from the other judges.

Other students that aided in the early stages of the project were Micha Linscheid, Zenfeng (Felix) Xian and Nathan Canete.

The win is showing benefits for the school district as a whole, according to KIBSD Superintendent Stewart McDonald.

“Their win put our World Bridge project, what we used to call America Bridge, into the international community,” McDonald said about the school’s projects and partnerships.

He said the district is now a partner with 100 open-source labs internationally, so they can join up with other project-based learning opportunities.

Among the first, Stewart McDonald said the University of Colorado has a space weather project that they want Kodiak involved in.

“Now they want a full partnership with the school system,” Stewart McDonald said. “It gets the kids to do similar things, and that opportunity has already opened up.”

“We hope we uncover some dreams for these kids to pursue and some directions to go in that they might not have otherwise known existed,” he said.

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