BOISE, Idaho — Two Idaho students have demonstrated a keen eye for invention, earning an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., as national finalists for eCYBERMISSION — a U.S. Army STEM competition for students in grades six through nine.
After volunteering at the Idaho Foodbank, sixth graders Kashvi Bansal and Rishi Gajera noticed that sorting donated food by nutritional value takes up valuable volunteer resources. Wanting to make it easier to find healthy ingredients, they built a device that automatically sorts food items by nutritional content.
Their device won recognition at local and regional eCYBERMISSION competitions. They were one of 20 teams attending nationals last weekend and one of five teams to win a $5,000 STEM-In-Action grant in recognition of their project’s community impact.
Kashvi and Rishi, students at Boise’s Treasure Valley Math and Science Center, call their team Cloudy with a Chance of Robotics. It’s a name inspired by one of their favorite movies, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
Kashvi and Rishi feel a kinship with the movie, in which a scientist invents a machine that brings new foods to a town that only has sardines.
“We’re kind of inventing healthy food for people and helping them eat healthy. But instead of meatballs, we have robotics,” Kashvi explained.
With limited engineering experience, Kashvi and Rishi learned how to build their prototype with guidance from their adviser, Raj Bansal, and YouTube. After several iterations, they developed a working prototype that can classify food with a camera.
Users operate the device with a touchscreen. Behind the touchscreen is the “heart” of the project, explained Rishi: a Raspberry Pi. This is a small, low-cost computer that connects the touchscreen to the camera.
The camera snaps ten pictures of a food item’s nutritional label. Then, the device picks a single image to process. With Python, a popular and versatile programming language, the device performs optical character recognition on the label — meaning that text is extracted and read from the image.
Once the label is converted to a text file, the food item is classified by its nutritional content into one of the five categories used by the Idaho Foodbank: protein, grain, vegetables, dairy or pantry staples.
Additionally, every item gets a unique ID to be stored in a database for future reference.
People don’t have time to read every value on a nutritional label and decide whether food is healthy or not, Kashvi said. Their device uses an algorithm based on health guidelines to instantly show which food category an item goes in, she added.
Food banks aim to provide healthy and nutritious food for neighbors struggling to make ends meet, said Jane McLaughlin, volunteer programs manager at the Idaho Foodbank.
Kashvi and Rishi’s device shows ingenuity and raises awareness about food security solutions, McLaughlin said. “To have somebody that young that wants to look at helping food security throughout the United States — it’s pretty phenomenal.”
The pair presented their work to the Idaho Foodbank’s board of directors, Idaho’s secretary of state and the governor’s office, where they received feedback on their idea and presentation skills.
Now, Kashvi and Rishi are practicing for their presentation in D.C.
They’re nervous but excited. They’ve even got themed ties for the occasion. Kashvi is wearing a hamburger tie, to represent unhealthy food, and Rishi’s wearing one decorated with fruits and vegetables.
In D.C., they’ll do more than just compete — they will also learn about careers in STEM and STEM in the U.S. Army.
Nationals won’t be the end of the road for Cloudy with a Chance of Robotics. Kashvi and Rishi intend to improve the device and turn it into a more portable and accessible smartphone app.
The project has helped define their career goals and ambitions.
Kashvi, interested in chemistry and the science of food, wants to be a chemical engineer. And Rishi, who enjoyed the iterative engineering process, wants to be a computer scientist.
And the project has also given them new wisdom about the food industry, which they are eager to share: “They say that there’s no sugar, but there actually is!”