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Santa Fe student wins $25,000 STEM prize

SANTA FE – It’s unlikely this Faris took many days off from school.

Faris Wald, a 15-year-old Santa Fe Public Schools student, on Tuesday was announced as winner of the Samueli Foundation Award for Innovation and a $25,000 cash prize during an event in Washington, D.C.

Wald’s top award was one of several prizes hand out as part of the 7th annual Broadcom MASTERS  — a prestigious science, technology, engineering and mathematics competition for middle school students — sponsored by Broadcom Foundation and Society for Science & the Public.

“In all honesty, I don’t know how to feel,” Wald said in a telephone interview Tuesday night from Washington, about 20 minutes after he was announced as the winner. “It’s a combination of emotions — mostly happiness, a little confusion.”

Wald, now a freshman at Santa Fe High School but who entered the competition last year while still an eighth-grader at Capshaw Middle School, was among 30 students from 17 states, and the only one from New Mexico, to be selected as a finalist by a panel of scientists and engineers from across the country. Nearly 2,500 students entered the competition.

He was selected as a finalist for his project studying a correlation between solar coronal hole occurrences and the formation of tropical and extra-tropical cyclones.

Wald, who wants to be a climatologist, theorized that charged particles from solar coronal holes — parts of the plasma around the sun that extend outward into space — would follow magnetic field lines from the sun in the form of the solar wind. “The charged particles then interact with the earth through its own magnetic field and enter the earth at its two magnetic poles,” he explained in his report.

Using data from government-funded websites on coronal holes and comparing it with data on tropical cyclones, Wald found a significant positive correlation between coronal hole events and cyclones.

Wald said the main “trigger event” for his idea was watching a Weather Channel report about the power of storms and then BBC or Nova shows about the sun’s intensity. He said his interest in the atmosphere and meteorology goes back to visits to the planetarium and studying the weather “when I was little.”

“Congratulations to Faris, whose impressive project has the potential to help us better understand the sun’s power to influence the weather, such as cyclones,” Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public, said in a news release.  “Now, more than ever, it is critical that we support our young scientists and cultivate their interest in STEM so that they can go on and solve many of the world’s most intractable problems.”

After presenting their projects to a judging committee on Saturday, the finalists formed teams that were monitored by judges. Each student was scored on their critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration skills. Wald earned the top prize based on both his participation in the team event and his report.

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