Pacific Collegiate School senior Jack Driscoll-Natale invented a low-cost water-quality monitor that’s easy to use and that he hopes will one day allow anyone from concerned citizens to environmental enthusiasts to understand what’s happening in the San Lorenzo River or the Santa Cruz Harbor.
Jack Driscoll-Natale was learning about measuring the health of local waterways for a class at Pacific Collegiate School his sophomore year when he realized there wasn’t enough publicly available data to complete his lab work. So he decided to build his own tool that can continuously monitor water quality.
Now the 17-year-old senior is racking up awards and plaudits from scientists for his invention, which can upload a continuous stream of water quality data to a publicly accessible website for the fraction of the cost of professional equipment.
Driscoll-Natale, an Aptos resident, was working on a project focused on analyzing data from the San Lorenzo River and Monterey Bay to better understand the impacts of climate change locally. He was looking into different metrics like pH levels that are important indicators of the effects of algal blooms or nitrogen outbreaks on the health of those water bodies, but couldn’t find sufficient data on local surface water.
For example, Driscoll-Natale said, at one point the California Environmental Protection Agency shared updated water quality metrics such as pH (potential of hydrogen or acidity) every few weeks or so. However, to fully account for how water quality naturally fluctuates compared to an abnormal event, samples should be measured much more frequently, maybe once a day or even every hour.
“It was an emotionally surprising experience,” he said. “It was definitely more of a discovery of the lack of data, and then that kind of drove me to develop the solution for it.”
After months of research and teaching himself about electronics and computer programming from watching YouTube videos, Driscoll-Natale came up with an award-winning solution: a low-cost solar-powered water-quality monitoring device capable of continuously capturing data 24/7 and uploading it to a public website. (His device isn’t currently connected to the site as he’s working on improvements.)
The solar-powered monitor includes an electronics box that attaches to a fixed object near a body of water, like a wooden beam in a harbor. Three probes then stretch down into the water and each measure either pH level, oxygen reproduction potential or water temperature — important metrics for understanding the warming climate.
“Most simply, the probes measure how acidic [or corrosive] the water is, how polluted it is, and how warm it is,” he said.
Driscoll-Natale said if pH reaches an extreme level, it can kill aquatic plants and animals because it makes them more vulnerable to toxins or heavy metals. Oxygen-reproduction potential measures the availability of oxygen in the water. When water is healthy, it has a high level of oxygen; when it’s polluted, it has less oxygen.
“Climate change can affect water quality by causing more pollution and changes in temperature, which can impact the amount of oxygen in our water bodies and harm aquatic life,” he said.
Using a wireless wifi chip and analog sensors, the monitor measures the data every 10 seconds and sends it to a website that any member of the public can access.
“Anyone can view it from anywhere, anytime. You can download all the raw data. You can use the information however you like,” Driscoll-Natale said. “There was the technology to create continuous water-quality data, but there wasn’t the accessibility for that in Santa Cruz. That’s what my project’s goal was.”
Right now the monitor is stationary, capable of measuring water quality in just one location. But Driscoll-Natale hopes to one day be able to attach the monitor to a robot or remotely operating vehicle so it can collect data from an entire harbor, for example.
Driscoll-Natale’s monitor cost just $300 to make, but he says it can collect the same amount of data as devices used by researchers from the United States Geological Survey that cost as much as $100,000.
The high school senior’s device has already racked up a slew of local, national and even international awards.
After winning Santa Cruz County’s Science & Engineering Fair (now STEAM, or Science Technology Engineering Arts Math Expo) this past spring, Driscoll-Natale won the Patent Application Award at the National Invention Convention. The award grants him up to $10,000 for lawyer fees to submit a patent application for his project. He hopes to send the application by the end of the year and get a response within the next two or three years.
Driscoll-Natale said judges told him his invention, because it’s affordable and easy to use, would also be very useful in natural disaster areas.
“A dad actually came up to me at the National Invention Convention talking to me about the importance of my monitor — how it would be important in India and other [developing] countries where they’re struggling to understand the health of their drinking water,” he said.
In May, he won a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas. At the state-level invention convention, he earned best in earth and environmental science.
Most recently, he won third place among projects that qualified for the Americas Invention Convention’s ninth grade through 11th grade category. The Americas Invention Convention includes the best inventors from the U.S. and Mexico.
“That was like the biggest surprise out of any of the awards,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it — that I was gonna get something.”
Two people whom Driscoll-Natale reached out to have been integral to his invention: County Office of Education Science Coordinator Heather Wygant and Yui Takeshita, a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
Takeshita, who specializes in developing autonomous sensing technology to study marine cycles, said Driscoll-Natale’s invention is significant because its cost effectiveness allows more people to use it, it’s portable and it provides continuous data.
“That’d be a great way for a school to learn what is going on in their backyard or in their environment or for aquaculture water-quality monitoring,” he said.
Driscoll-Natale heard about Takeshita last year through UC Santa Cruz students while attending an event at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. He emailed Takeshita to ask him for advice on his project and they met for coffee.
Once his project was finalized, Driscoll-Natale told Takeshita about his awards and updates to his monitor, and Takeshita invited him to present it to MBARI staff in Moss Landing.
“His final product was way beyond what I had ever expected from a high schooler’s project — he had a solar panel on it that charges the small battery, so it can run essentially forever,” he said. ”It’s a really, really neat little system.”
Wygant puts on the county’s Science & Engineering Fair/STEAM Expo. She first made contact with Driscoll-Natale when the 17-year-old emailed Wygant last year to ask her where he could find inexpensive water-chemistry water-monitoring probes.
Wygant and Driscoll-Natale emailed back and forth about different options, then lost touch until they ran into each other at STEAM Expo this spring. Wygant later chaperoned several students to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Dallas.
Wygant remembers one free afternoon in Dallas when Driscoll-Natale and other students had the option to sightsee but they instead wanted to do homework.
“Jack asks me, ’Do you know anything about linear regression?’” she recalled him asking about the difficult statistical analysis technique. “He is just so sharp.”
As a water chemistry whiz, Wygant thinks Driscoll-Natale’s project is a great idea. “I’d buy it,” she said. “If I was still doing koi ponds, I would purchase one and put it in my pond and I’d get an alert if anything happened water-chemistry-wise.”
After Driscoll-Natale finishes his college applications this fall, he’ll start a research project for course credit with Takeshita at the research institute. They have yet to decide what he’ll explore.
As for colleges, he is undecided on Arizona State University, and his top choices are Stanford University or UC Berkeley for computer engineering or electrical engineering and computer science, respectively.
When he’s not doing homework, he’s surfing, swimming or preparing for his lead role as Robert in the school’s upcoming play, “The Rimers of Eldritch.” Or he’s keeping up with a bet against a friend that one of them won’t make it to the beach every day of senior year.
Driscoll-Natale is also finishing the patent application for his invention and hopes that he’ll get approved on his first try. His goal for the monitor is to continue improving it so one day he can work with a data-management company so the data could be shared with local schools and the general public — and eventually internationally.
What started as a way to help with his schoolwork has since turned into a passion project: “I knew that I had the information to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved — the idea behind that and like the excitement behind that was kind of what led into it.”
His mom, Anita Natale, said her son is the kind of person to never give up when he puts his mind to something. Natale is a retired high school English teacher and former director of a YMCA outdoor science school in Boulder Creek. She said he’s “really great at finding resources” and isn’t afraid of reaching out to people for help.
“Jack is a self-motivated dude,” she said. “He has the kind of grit to where [if] there’s a problem he’s just going to keep working on it until he solves it.”
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