A Clovis North sophomore took home a grand prize of $50,000 at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last month.
It was a moment John Estrada will never forget — and one his parents almost missed, due to Estrada winning a $5,000 award moments prior.
“When I won the first-place category award for plant science, my parents started celebrating and dancing, and stopped paying attention to the top awards ceremony,” Estrada remembered. “My sister had to ask them to stop celebrating and pay attention to the program as there was still a chance for me to get a top prize.”
The Gordon E. Moore $50,000 Award for Positive Outcomes for Future Generations, according to the ISEF website, is awarded to a student whose science fair project “makes an enduring difference for future generations through rigorous scientific inquiry and a passion for discovery and invention.”
Estrada’s project included a robotic camera that captures infrared and invisible light images from a plant’s leaves, as well as an “artificial intelligence” computer program that detects drought stress levels in plants using the camera’s images.
Estrada won first place in the “Plant Sciences” category at ISEF along with the Moore Award, totaling $55,000 worth of post-secondary education scholarship money. His project also placed first at the Fresno County Science Fair in March.
In fact, Estrada was one of 10 Clovis North students to win first place in a category at the Fresno County Science Fair under the guidance of Kay Barrie, the science fair coordinator at Clovis North and Granite Ridge.
“You can see the passion that [Estrada] has, the desire to help farmers and agricultural workers in the Valley,” Barrie said. “He definitely had a buy-in to this project.”
“But what I’m most impressed with is his youth… his determination to do this and understand what he’s talking about is a pretty big deal. I’m not sure I understand it all.”
The process of constructing the A.I. computer program and building the robotic camera began last year and continued into the early part of 2021. Due to the pandemic, Estrada scrapped his original plans of conducting his project under field conditions and, instead, conducted his experiment indoors in a well-controlled environment.
“A solid three to four weeks of sleepless nights were spent in the development of the AIDA model,” Estrada said. “I spent three to four weeks as well building the functioning robotic camera.”
When it came time to test samples, Estrada saw his computer model ran an absolute error rate of 0.00048, meaning it was a very accurate, early predictor of drought stress.
Estrada said he was convinced that he was “onto something really big and special” when his project was one of four selected to represent the Central Valley at ISEF, and won first place at the California Science and Engineering Fair.
“I came from hoping to qualify at the Fresno County Science Fair for a place at the ISEF delegation, to hoping to get a category or even just a special award, to actually winning first in the category, and eventually garnering a top award,” Estrada said. “It almost seems too good to be true, and here I am hoping not to wake up from this wonderful dream.”