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Los Gatos native Kari Byron part of inaugural national STEM challenge

Los Gatos native Kari Byron has gone from busting myths to supporting STEM education as co-founder of a nonprofit aimed at getting students more interested in the sciences.

Byron, a former cast member of the Discovery Channel show “Mythbusters,” helped launch the National STEM Challenge via a collaboration between her nonprofit EXPLR and the U.S. Department of Education, which last October started soliciting science project ideas from students across the United States and its territories. A small group of champions have been invited to present their projects at the National STEM festival in Washington, D.C. in April, including Santa Clara resident Ella Lan, a senior at the Harker School.

The National STEM Challenge after the annual National Science Fair held at the White House by the Obama administration ended, Byron said. She and EXPLR co-founder Jenny Buccos proposed the National STEM Challenge as an expanded alternative.

Open to students in grades 6-12, the National STEM Challenge encourages students to “craft a STEM project that tackles a real-world challenge,” the website states. Students submitted presentations about their projects in the first round, and a select group of finalists submitted videos explaining their ideas in more detail.

To make the challenge as inclusive as possible, Byron said, organizers decided to forego submission fees and to find sponsors to cover the cost for travel and accommodation for the April event.

“If you were on a reservation in Alaska or you were in rural Kansas or you were in inner city New York, we wanted you to participate,” she added.

The group of students selected as champions who will be traveling to D.C. this April hail from the contiguous United States but also Guam, American Samoa and Alaska. An “overwhelming” number of the project submissions also came from girls of color, Byron said.

“We really have worked very, very hard to reach every corner of the United States,” she added.

Local champion Lan, 17, created a low-cost, artificial intelligence-enabled and wearable heart monitor. Fashioned as either an earring or a ring, the small device can be used to continuously track heart conditions at home

The idea originated for Lan during the pandemic, when her grandparents were in need of an at-home heart monitor. Her device costs only about $25 to manufacture, making it an affordable alternative to devices like the Apple watch that cost hundreds of dollars.

Her device also seeks to conduct continuous cardiovascular monitoring, since most other heart monitoring technologies track such data sporadically.

“I really wanted to create a solution where if the (heart rate) signals were consistently monitored, maybe that would be able to perform early detection of certain cardiovascular risks,” she said.

Byron said the goal is to make the National STEM Challenge and the festival in D.C. an annual tradition, with plans to solicit even more submissions in future years.

“The first year is the hardest because this is where we figure out all of the nuts and bolts. After this it’s going to be an unstoppable machine,” she said.

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