‘Ingenuity and innovation’

West Hempstead High School students recognized for research on biodegradable masks


For West Hempstead High School’s STEM team, being one of 75 schools in the county to be named semifinalists in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow 2020-21 Education Contest in February was a thrilling moment. Last month, the group was contacted by scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Food and Drug Administration about their research on biodegradable masks.

The STEM team’s research, on whether the effectiveness of a biodegradable mask can be tested at home, is expected to be published by scientists from the NIST next spring.

“It’s super cool to see them gain this kind of recognition,” said West Hempstead High research teacher Sal Trupia. “They’re really such humble kids, and it really makes me feel good to see that they’re doing so well.”

Solve for Tomorrow addresses the nationwide academic challenge of improving students’ science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education. Students were tasked with showing how these subjects can be applied to help improve their communities. Freshmen Steven Poirot and Alicia Maria and sophomores Tenoch Jaramillio, Glenda Garcia and Victoria and Gloria Guerrier brainstormed a few ideas on how to meet the challenge early in the school year. After they submitted the concept of biodegradable masks to the Samsung contest in De-cember, Garcia and the Guerriers carried out much of the research. The school later received a $15,000 package of Samsung technology and classroom resources.

The girls, all 15-year-olds, tested the masks in a dark room, using a bright floodlight and a nebulizer to examine the vapor in someone’s breath that escapes through a mask. They recorded the visuals with a Samsung smartphone and an iPhone. Trupia noted that groups like the NIST use special mirrors and cameras for such testing.

“If you look at when sunlight is shining through a window, you see dust particles,” Trupia explained. “It’s the same idea, except we’re looking at the water vapor coming out of the nebulizer.”

“Once we created that testing method,” Garcia added, “it kind of opened more doors as to how we can test the efficiency in a way that anyone else could do them at home and outside of school. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement, but this is certainly a strong start. We also hope that this is something that gets people interested in the idea of having something that’s eco-friendly.”

Victoria Guerrier said she was happy that group members were able to continue their research, and that they had only scratched the surface. “We didn’t want this research to end,” she said. “We had so [much] fun with it, and we just wanted to keep it going.”

The most challenging part of the project was figuring out to how to carefully catch the droplet emissions on camera. After four months of trial and error, the group was pleased with the final product. “Once we had everything in tune, we were able to actually capture what we were hoping to see, which was very rewarding,” Gloria said.

Through Solve for Tomorrow, Samsung is hoping to foster interest in STEM among students and illustrate the practical impact these subjects can have. The company donated more than $2 million in technology, classroom supplies and other contest prizes to schools this year.

“STEM is such an important part of the curriculum and culture here at West Hempstead,” the high school’s principal, James DeTommaso, stated in a news release. “We are very proud of their ingenuity and innovation.”

Garcia and the Guerriers plan to continue to meet regularly with Trupia during the summer to conduct additional research. They also plan to research other methods for testing masks while studying more scientific reviews on the subject. “This whole experience was so much fun,” Victoria said. “We’re all very excited to see what happens in the future.”