LOS ALAMOS – When U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján introduced the winners of this year’s New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge, he referred to them as the “Dynamic Duo” from La Cueva High School in Albuquerque.
And certainly Eli Echt-Wilson and Albert Zuo meet the definition as a pair “positive in attitude, and full of energy and new ideas.”
The La Cueva juniors raided last week’s award ceremony, earning honors in four categories – Most Professional Presentation, Best Visualization Output, Best Written Report and Crowd Favorite – in addition to the overall top prize for their project, “Modeling Tree Growth and Resource Use with Applications.”
“It’s a computer model to predict how a tree will grow given certain environmental conditions,” Echt-Wilson said.
But it’s more complicated than that.
The 17-year-olds applied math and computer skills to develop a biologically accurate model of tree growth, then validated their model by confirming that their computer-generated trees exhibited the same rules found in nature.
A team of judges deemed the project the best among about 70 others submitted by students from across the state. In addition to winning a first place trophy, the teens each earned $1,000 for their first place finish. Los Alamos National Laboratory is the main sponsor of the event.
Cole Kendrick of Los Alamos High School placed second for a project simulating classical nova explosions, while Ahmed Muhyi, Ian Rankin and Sophia Sanchez-Maes of Las Cruces’ Young Women in Computing placed third for a project focused on microalgae.
More than $40,000 in scholarships were also awarded during Tuesday’s ceremony, held at the Los Alamos Church of Christ.
“I’d say at first we just wanted to make a pretty tree – or one that was biologically accurate. But later on we started thinking about the practical side of it and we started moving into the environmental sides of things,” Zuo said.
“Trees are really good for the environment because instead of putting out carbon dioxide, they take in carbon dioxide,” Echt-Wilson said. “That’s really important for things like global warming.”
Echt-Wilson said what takes place over the course of decades in the real world can be simulated on their computer in the click of a mouse.
“For instance, if you wanted to grow a plantation and wanted to know what the optimal planting conditions are, you would have to plant a bunch of trees and wait 20 years until they’ve grown. So the application of a model like this is that it can be used to quickly predict how trees will grow in an environment and optimize those conditions,” he said.