Most of us don’t think much about the larvae of black soldier flies, but some Princeton High School students want to change that.

The school was recently honored as one of the national winners of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, which encourages students to solve problems using skills in science, technology, engineering and math.

As one of the contest’s three national winners, the school will receive $100,000 in Samsung technology and classroom supplies and an additional $10,000 for being named the contest’s employee choice winner.

About 35 students from Princeton’s engineering and research classes took part in the challenge, according to Mark Eastburn, a science/research teacher at Princeton High School.

Their work centered on using the larvae of black soldier flies to break down food waste, which is among the top contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. They also demonstrated how the larvae, which contain a high-quality oil, could be converted into usable products such as animal feed and to make soap and other goods that rely on palm and coconut oil. Extracting those oils often leads to deforestation, but the larvae provide a sustainable substitute.

Ngan Le, a junior with a broad array of interests, including dermatology and sustainability, was among the Princeton students who pitched the project to judges at Samsung’s flagship location in Manhattan April 25.

“This project was a great space to utilize concepts I learned in class,” she said during a Zoom interview with NJSBA. “For me, sustainability has always been something very important. With COVID regulations, a lot of projects were halted, and it was great to get back into the swing of things to not just collaborate with my peers but to learn more about bugs.”

She continued, “When you typically hear about bugs, it has that ick factor – for myself included. But over time, I realized that bugs have a purpose and can be incredibly helpful in tackling issues if we see them as a medium for doing so.”

Matthew Livingston also was on hand to make the pitch to judges. He noted that from early on, the Princeton students involved in the project were impressed by how black soldier flies could survive harsh conditions. Research showed that their larvae could break down rotten meat and human waste and survive with no ill effects. “They are extraordinary insects,” he said. “You can turn them into anything, and they won’t have the diseases of whatever they were raised in.”

A number of classes contributed to the project, including a group of English language learner students who played a critical role in engineering a bioreactor bucket to house the flies.

“We have a group of Guatemalan students – many of whom arrived in October of last year — who have suffered through some very challenging circumstances,” Eastburn said. “They also had a patchy education because of the need to work or avoid violence. So, the fact that we were able to integrate them into this project along with more seasoned students in our research program was tremendous. It provided a phenomenal opportunity for students to wrestle with real-world problems and build entrepreneurial skills.”

Eastburn would love for other schools to see the approach Princeton took and emulate it to promote the collaboration of students from all backgrounds. He added that it was tremendously rewarding to see how engaged students were with the project.

Jacqueline Katz, a science teacher at Princeton High School, was with students when they presented their winning idea April 25. Jennifer Smolyn, a biology/research teacher, also played a critical role in working with the Princeton students on their project.

“To see the degree to which these students could convey their science to a group of people was truly incredible,” Katz said. “I was floored by how clearly they spoke about the project as well as in the video that spoke about their collaboration.”

While the students who presented are enrolled in Princeton’s three-year science program, Katz noted that they would not have been able to accomplish all they did without some heavy lifting from the English language learners in Eastburn’s Introduction to Engineering class.

“One thing that really set our team apart that the judges and everyone recognized was not just that this was a really cool project, but it was a really cool process, including how it came to fruition. It stood out,” Katz said.

Overcoming Challenges

To make winning a reality, students had to overcome an array of challenges, including finding pre-consumer food waste.

Livingston and other students made connections with supermarket chains and other businesses where they gained access to fruits, vegetables and other food before it was tossed. After that, it was a matter of collecting the food and mashing it in bins for the larvae.

Another student, Muhammad Shazaib Ali, contributed to the cause by sourcing food from his employer. At the end of each day, some of it was thrown out. “I thought it was the best idea to use that food for this project – it was a real benefit for us,” he said.

Students found out that whether the flies ate a grain diet or rotten food, they posed no threat to humans if they were then used to make soap – or if their oil was used as ingredients in food, such as hummus or hazelnut spread.

The students also had to secure the larvae and prove that its oil could be used in soap and other products. Fortunately, a company donated a 5-gallon drum of oil so students would not have to extract it themselves while they raised enough flies to get a sustainable amount of it.

Mridula Bajaj, district supervisor of professional development, testing and assessment and supervisor of science at Princeton Public Schools, noted as a supervisor, her goal is always to set up a process conducive to success and then get out of the way. Letting teachers do what they know how to do also inspired students to be creative, she said.

As of now, the school is deciding how it will use the prize money and resources, but it will certainly be put to good use, Eastburn said. He’d love for a portion to be put toward a greenhouse and other resources that could aid in STEM education.

Students have talked about forging ahead with their idea and starting a business, Eastburn said. “It is amazing to see that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.

Being named a national winner is still sinking in for the students, the teachers and administrators who played a role in the project.

“For me, I’m still kind of processing what happened and the beauty of it,” Eastburn said. “We are thinking in late May we may be able to sell soap locally at farmers markets. I also always look at Whole Foods and the soap stack and think, ‘Gosh, we need to be there at some point.’ We are not there yet where we can mass produce soap, but we hope to get to that point.”

He added that the project also garnered an honorable mention in a contest held by Penn Climate Ventures, which was also open to students at the college level. “These high school kids were competing against students from Wharton Business School and university and graduate schools across the country,” he said.

Words of Praise from Samsung

Ann Woo, senior director of corporate citizenship at Samsung Electronics America, noted how appreciative the company is to be able to recognize such talented students. “We are thankful to have the opportunity to recognize such a remarkable group of inspiring and innovative Solve for Tomorrow students in person after a two-year virtual hiatus,” she said in a news release. “These students continue to tackle problems of national importance with extraordinary solutions. We look forward to seeing our Samsung Solve for Tomorrow students continue to make a difference in our world in the years to come.”

As for the Princeton team in particular, Woo said the judges were very impressed with the varied applications of the project — from recycling food waste out of landfills to harvesting the black soldier flies for feed or in products. “It was amazing that they actually showed an example of the byproduct of the oil — by showing the lavender soap,” she said.

The panel of judges consisted of Alexis Burns, research scientist for the Samsung Artificial Intelligence Center; James Fishler, senior vice president of home entertainment at Samsung Electronics America; Michael Josh Villanueva, a tech journalist and founder of GadgetMatch; Melissa Taggart, director of international programs at the North American Association for Environmental Education; and Tom O’Neill, an IT professional and educator.

As for the prize money, the national winners can select  the technology and supplies that they need most for their classroom and school through DonorsChoose, Woo said. “Products can range from tablets, Chromebooks and much more,” she said. “As part of the strive for sustainability, at Samsung, we will encourage schools to select Samsung Energy Star products as part of their packages. All Samsung tech products are at the teams’ disposal to choose from — it sounds broad because it is. Whatever they could need for their classroom is available to them. Teachers will usually use the money for Chromebooks, tablets, flip boards, monitors and other Samsung tech to make classrooms 1:1. They can also buy 3D printers and other tech to broaden their STEM departments and create more opportunities for students to get excited about STEM.”

View Princeton High School’s project video.

Learn more about the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest and the two other national winners.