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Tanushree Sundar, Idaho statesman

BOYS, Idaho — Two Idaho students have demonstrated a keen eye for invention by earning a fully funded trip to Washington, DC as national finalists for the competition. eCYBERMISSION is a US Army STEM competition for students in grades six through nine.

After volunteering at the Idaho Foodbank, sixth graders Kashvi Bansal and Rishi Gajera noticed that sorting donated food by nutritional value requires valuable volunteer resources. Wanting to make it easier to find healthy ingredients, they created a device that automatically sorts foods by nutrient content.

Their device has been recognized in local and regional eCYBERMISSION competitions. This is one of 20 teams that will take part in the national competition this weekend and one of five teams to win a $5,000 prize. STEM grant in action in recognition of their project’s impact on society.

Kashvi and Rishi, students at the Treasure Valley Center for Mathematics and Science in Boise, became the first team from Idaho to reach a national championship. As the West’s sixth graders, they beat teams from larger states, including California.

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The pair call themselves Cloudy with a robotics capability. The name is inspired by one of their favorite movies, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

Kashvi and Rishi feel an affinity for a film in which a scientist invents a machine that delivers new food to a city where only sardines are available.

“We kind of invent healthy food for people and help them eat healthy food. But instead of meatballs, we have robotics,” Kashvi explained.

With limited engineering experience, Kashvi and Rishi learned how to build their prototype under the guidance of their consultant Raj Bansal and YouTube. After several iterations, they developed a working prototype that can classify food using a camera.

Users control the device using the touch screen. Behind the touch screen, Rishi says, is the heart of the project: the Raspberry Pi. This is a small, inexpensive computer that connects a touchscreen to a camera.

The camera takes ten pictures of the food label. The device then selects one image to process. Using Python, a popular and versatile programming language, the device performs optical character recognition on the label, i.e. the text is extracted and read from the image.

Once the label is converted to a text file, the food is classified by nutrient content into one of the five categories used by the Idaho Food Bank: protein, grains, vegetables, dairy, or staples.

In addition, each element receives a unique identifier, which is stored in the database for further use.

According to Kashvi, people don’t have time to read every number on a nutritional label and decide whether a food is healthy or not. Their device uses an algorithm based on health recommendations to instantly show which food category a product belongs to, she added.

Food banks are looking to provide healthy, nutritious food for neighbors struggling to make ends meet, said Jane McLaughlin, volunteer program manager at the Idaho Food Bank.

According to McLaughlin, Kashvi and Rishi’s device shows ingenuity and raises awareness of food security solutions. “To have such a young person who wants to help food security throughout the United States is pretty phenomenal.”

The couple presented their work to the Idaho Foodbank Board of Directors, the Idaho Secretary of State, and the Governor’s Office, where they received feedback on their idea and presentation skills.

Now Kashvi and Rishi are preparing for the presentation in Washington.

They are nervous but excited. They even have themed ties for the occasion. Kashvi wears a hamburger tie symbolizing junk food while Rishi wears a tie adorned with fruits and vegetables.

In DC, they will do more than just compete – they will also learn about STEM and STEM careers in the US Army.

Nationals won’t be the end of the road for Cloudy with a Chance of Robotics. Kashvi and Rishi intend to improve the device and turn it into a more portable and affordable smartphone app.

The project helped define their career goals and ambitions.

Kashvi, who is interested in chemistry and food science, wants to become a chemical engineer. And Rishi, who liked the iterative engineering process, wants to become a computer scientist.

And the project also gave them new wisdom about the food industry, which they willingly share: “They say that there is no sugar, but in fact there is!”

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