Westminster STEM student named national winner of Battelle Climate Challenge

Westminster High School senior Ashley Nguyen was awarded a first-place trophy at the Innovations in Climate Resilience Conference hosted by Battelle.

With rising sea levels projected to erode two-thirds of California’s coast in the next 100 years, Westminster High School senior Ashley Nguyen decided to develop a restoration method made from seeds, sea mud, clay and silt to help strengthen eelgrass and prevent ground erosion.

The “Seed Bomb” — as Ashley named her project — won first place in the nationwide Battelle Climate Challenge on March 28. Hosted in partnership with Future Engineers, this contest called on students to research the effects of climate-related hazards in their communities and then develop an actionable strategy to lessen their impacts on the environment.

In addition to devising a solution, participants were tasked with creating a poster visually detailing each step of how they plan to develop their climate action. The project entries were also required to include a plan for how their communities can prevent or recover from that climate-related event.

After submitting her project in January, Ashley made it through the semifinalist and finalist rounds before receiving a call from competition organizers that she had placed first in the ninth- through 12th-grade division.

“Advancing to the national round gave me the opportunity to shed light onto overlooked environmental issues in Southern California as well as allowed me to proudly represent my Southeast Asian community in the environmental field,” Ashley said. “I felt a tender warmth inside me that hope still remains strong for our future generations and future, and with no doubt, we can combat climate change.” 

Connecting with climate experts

Ashley and her climate-conscious restoration model were invited to Columbus, Ohio, where she presented her project at Battelle’s Innovations in Climate Resilience Conference from March 28 to March 30 at The Ohio State University. The Westminster 12th-grader said the experience allowed her to receive helpful feedback from the climate experts in attendance and exchange ideas with other students.

Battelle is a not-for-profit research and development organization that works to strengthen STEM education and solutions in the areas of biology, chemistry, advanced materials, engineering and data science. 

Since joining the Mathematics Educated Resources Integrated Technology Science program — or MERITS — at her high school, Ashley has participated in multiple STEM competitions, including the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair and last year’s Toshiba ExploraVision Competition, where her team presented a project on restoring honey-producing bee colonies to scientist Bill Nye in Washington, D.C.

While collecting data and brainstorming the “Seed Bomb,” Ashley utilized resources and data from the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve to help innovate a sustainable, simple and cost-effective solution to sea-level rise. This led her to focus on protecting eelgrass populations, which act as natural buffers for plants and sediments along the shore. By creating balls of eelgrass seeds and organic matter, then burying them along the subtidal zone, Ashley’s method would help restore eelgrass along the coast and protect the beaches that are important to Southern California residents.

Solving real-world issues with STEM

MERITS program coach Huy Pham said he and his colleagues are proud of students like Ashley for the example they set while completing STEM projects and furthering their own knowledge of science beyond what’s taught in the classroom.

Westminster High School student Ashley Nguyen attends the Battelle Innovations in Climate Resilience Conference in Columbus, Ohio.

“Scientists, engineers and programmers don’t take multiple choice tests but go out to do research, solve problems, create innovations, etc. to make the world a better place,” Pham said. “We encourage our students to do hands-on real world-based projects inspired both by the knowledge gained in their classes and by problems they observe in their community.”

MERITS is a specialized honors program at Westminster that gives students the opportunity to explore the various fields in STEM. The program also offers rigorous and rewarding curriculum that prepares students for higher education and the workforce.

Starting in summer 2024, Ashley will take part in a paid summer internship with Battelle to continue her research on climate science.

As part of her grand prize, she has also earned a $5,000 STEM grant, which will go to Westminster High’s MERITS program and the campus environmental club.

“We are thrilled to recognize Ashley for her innovative thinking and dedication to solving one of the world’s toughest challenges,” Battelle Vice President of Philanthropy and Education Wes Hall said in a statement. “We are proud to support students such as Ashley who are committed to leveraging STEM skills to better their local communities.”