Samsung's Solve for Tomorrow contest inspires students to pursue STEM

Samantha Hoover, 14, said it didn’t sink in that she would be presenting work she did for a school project at the 2015 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow event in New York City until she stepped on the plane. It was the first visit to the city for the ninth grader from James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

“It really hit me when I got to the airport and I thought ‘we’re going to New York and we’re going to present our project here,’ ” she said. “It didn’t seem real until we were on the flight here.”

Sam Tritto, her math teacher, summed it up best: “we went from the Big Pineapple to the Big Apple.”

Tritto, Hoover, and ninth grader Christopher Calambacan, 14, represented their school during a presentation at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in midtown Manhattan on March 18. Their project, “Keeping Cool with Salt Water,” devises a way to power cooling devices with one of their island’s most plentiful resources – salt water – to combat the draining daily heat and humidity that uses up electricity and can be a regular source of discomfort for those living in the tropical state. The project is one of 15 finalists in the Samsung competition – a nationwide search for school projects that apply Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) skills picked up in the classroom to address real-world issues facing students’ communities.

Now in its fifth year, the competition is designed to spur interest in STEM subjects among the nation’s sixth through 12th graders. At the beginning of the school year, more than 3,100 schools submitted entries to the competition, from there, 255 finalists from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. were chosen. The state finalists had to then submit a lesson plan to Samsung judges, building a framework for the projects that would address community issues ranging from environmental conservation and waste management to noise control in busy urban neighborhoods. A winner from each state was chosen, and from there, the final 15 finalists were selected to present their work in front of a judge’s panel at the Intrepid event. The last round of five winners will be announced at the end of March, and next month, these successful student teams will attend an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

It’s been a long haul for these schools, and for the competition organizers, the event is more than winning prizes, it is about inspiring the next generation of innovators.

“Education is really important to us, simply because it’s who we are, it’s in our DNA,” Ann Woo, Samsung’s director of corporate responsibility, told “We are the largest tech company in the world and we are made up of a lot of scientists and engineers. It’s really important to create a strong pipeline of students who are interested in STEM subjects. It gets them to think about the community, about the world around them.”

While the contest isn’t all about money, winning a slice of the over $2 million in prizes is a big boon for participating schools, many of which have faced harsh budget cuts. Woo said that winning schools receive Samsung tech supplies such as TVs, laptops, or cameras that fit specific school needs.

For Woo, the contest’s big success comes from watching the excitement of students in presenting their hard school year’s-worth of work. At the March 18 event at the Intrepid, the students were often unflappably confident, sharing their work with the judges’ panel on a stage in front of their peers, friends, families, and Samsung volunteers and staff.

“I was a little nervous,” Courtney Blakely, 11, told

Blakely is a sixth-grade student at the Frankie W. McCullough Academy for Girls in Gary, Indiana. During the event, Blakely and Angel Wells, 13, presented her school’s project that centered on creating a community garden that could bring fresh produce for locals in an area where fresh produce is not often found on supermarket shelves.

When she started work on the project, did Wells envision presenting it in front of a panel of science and technology industry professionals?

“No, not at all,” Wells said. “It’s been fun and exciting.”

For Yvonne Lucas, the girls’ science teacher, watching the presentation was a moment of pride.

“To be an all-girls school with students who come mostly from two housing projects in the area – one from the East side and one from the West side – it’s important to show them that it doesn’t matter about the socio-economics (of where they come from),” Lucas told “They can still succeed. These students come from a different economic background with different challenges than those who come from those academic gifted schools. They can do it.”

Woo reiterated that this is one of the main functions of the contest – to give a platform to the ingenuity of students from all corners of the country and from all walks of life.

“It’s impressive just to see the creativity and determination of these students to come up with a solution to a problem facing their communities,” Woo said. “I really think all of these students will have an impact in the future. There’s no reason for them not to have that kind of impact.”

The reach that the competition’s national lens can have is wide. The final five national winners are determined from three ways – an employee vote within Samsung, winners based on the event’s judging panel, and an online vote open to the public. Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. EST on March 25.

Many of the students at the event see a future in STEM careers.

Blakely and Wells want to take Lucas’s lead and become teachers. Blakely hopes to be a math teacher – she always gets straight-As in math – while Wells said she “loves science.”

Hoover and Calambacan are similar.

“I have an interest in anesthesiology, actually,” Calambacan said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I want to take more AP (advanced placement) courses in school in my junior and senior years in math and science.”

Hoover said she envisions a career as an environmental engineer.

“Being here is just an honor,” Tritto, their teacher, said. “Right from the beginning this year, these students knew what to do. They came together, looked at their resources and knew what to do. As an educator, it’s all about opening up eyes to see the environment as a resource. Someday, they will be the engineers and the innovators who can harness this energy around them. I’m just so proud. Super proud.”