Carmel Unified School District

Team pHFine Scale

By Will Bans

team with Sam Farr  
The team meeting Representative Farr
A group of Carmel students has made waves from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

The group, Team pHFine Scale, accepted an invitation to showcase its professional, international competition-tested ocean sensor at the launch of the bipartisan Congressional Prize Caucus on Oct. 6 in Washington D.C.


Carmel High seniors Jack Maughan, Benek Robertson, Ethan Miller and Ethan Kurteff — also members of the CHS robotics team — will make the trip.

“This is a terrific opportunity for the team to discuss and highlight their stories, ideas and technologies with policymakers, key congressional staff and the D.C. innovation community,” said Lisa Walder, the team’s project manager and Maughan’s mother.

When Maughan was a sophomore, he heard about a special competition: The Wendy Schmitt Ocean Health XPrize. The international challenge sought the most accurate and affordable way to measure ocean acidification with breakthrough ocean pH sensors.
And it had two million-dollar purses.
Maughan used all his savings to pay the entry fee and compiled the team.
When the work was underway, no other XPrize participant faced more than the CHS teens: They balanced a heavy academic workload, extracurricular activities and part-time work while building the sensor, creatively finding solutions with each step.
And, unlike the other participants, they weren’t getting paid to build the sensor.
“We went into the first competition with the resin on the outside of our sensor not completely dry,” Maughan said. “We spent months and months of late weekend nights trying to get the thing working correctly. In the last month there were plenty of all-nighters spent in the final rush.”
Team pHFine Scale succeeded at the trials held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing. Out of 77 groups, Team pHFine Scale was one of only 14 to qualify for the next phase in Seattle.
At the Seattle Aquarium, they were up against international experts in the field and, again, their sensor performed strongly. But it did not deliver a complete data set and they fell short of the prize.
The Washington D.C. invitation, however, is quite the consolation.
“They showed perseverance and ingenuity by quickly developed a working ocean pH sensor,” said Matt Huelsenbeck, the prize manager for XPrize, which invited the team to Washington D.C.

The problem of ocean acidification happens when increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere results in more acidic water, and the seawater’s pH level drops.

“Building our sensor made us all realize how serious the problem of ocean acidification really is,” Kurteff said. “It’s important to quantify environmental issues like this, and we made it our mission to create a device that could provide the scientific data necessary to convince people of the gravity of human impact on the environment.”

Team pHFine Scale hopes to market the sensor as an inexpensive, accurate tool to help solve such a significant problem in the world’s oceans.
“In certain aspects of the competition pHFine Scale’s device was even able to outperform some leading research institutions, surprising some of the expert validators,” Huelsenbeck said. “They are true innovators with a can-do spirit and a bright future ahead of them.”
STEM Matters
Each member is preparing for a future in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Maughan serves as the team’s technical lead; Kurteff oversees the sensor’s calibration to get accurate data; Robertson manages the sensor’s packaging to keep the interior electronics safe underwater; Maughan’s sister, Caroline, led marketing and fundraising until she graduated from CHS in 2014 and then their younger sister, Bridgett, filled in; and Miller joined later to head the team’s product development in the hopes of selling the sensor.
The team built the sensor in Maughan’s garage and used their background knowledge gained from their own research, the robotics club and CHS teachers such as Paul McFarlin (robotics club), Tom Clifford (computer science) and Michael Guardino (chemistry).

Team pHFine Scale “is an inspiration,” Guardino said. “They engineered a practical solution to a scientific problem and should be recognized for their hard work.”

And the team wants to promote STEM for others as well.
“We want to convince young people to put themselves out there, to take risks in business and STEM,” Kurteff said. “Even you don’t make it at first, you’ll gain more than you could imagine.”
Added Miller: “D.C. will help us get the message out, the message of youth in STEM. We feel like STEM needs fresh minds right now.”