A group of middle-school students from Snowflake, a small Arizona town about three hours northeast of Phoenix, is one of three winning teams in a national STEM competition hosted by Samsung.

Snowflake Junior High School teacher Mike Eilertsen and 30 to 40 of his students have worked tirelessly for months on their project for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest.

It’s paid off: They won $170,000 in technology for their school — $150,000 for having a winning idea, and $20,000 for being the school that earned the most votes from the public on social media.

“It’s like a crazy amount,” Eilertsen said. “It really will help out the district, because our community’s been hit hard … and something like this will rejuvenate our community.”

Teams from Gering, Nebraska, and  Brooklyn, New York, were the other winners.

Making a difference in Snowflake

Although Eilertsen and some students were in Washington, D.C., for the awards announcement on Thursday, Samsung also live-streamed the event. Colleagues told Eilertsen that the entire school paused to watch it and, when they won, “the whole school erupted with cheers.”

Eilertsen said the school has struggled with statewide testing because it has so few computers that students have to take turns, but the prize likely will help the school provide one computer for each student and still have plenty left for the entire district.

The Snowflake Unified School District has seven schools total, providing education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The team from Snowflake Junior High also won a $35,000 donation to a local non-profit of their choice. The students chose the Phoenix Herpetological Society.

“I have such a hope and a belief in the human potential,” Eilertsen said. “I think humans are capable of amazing things, but it’s the hope that they lack, it’s the encouragement they need, and so when they experience something like this — a little small town, when they put their mind to it, can accomplish great things — it gives them hope and drive and with that amazing things can happen.”

Their winning contest idea

The contest asked sixth- through 12th-grade students to use STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — to come up with a solution to improve their local communities.

RELATED: Snowflake school makes top 10 in national STEM contest

The class designed and built a low-cost animal-detection system as a way to prevent wildlife-vehicle crashes, which kill an estimated 200 people each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Students created a 3-D design, programmed controllers, 3-D-printed a model, replicated it with plastic molds, worked with a local machinist to cut metal parts and much more.

“I’ve been looking forward to this being done because it’s so consuming,” Eilertsen said. He and his class have spent hundreds of hours on the project.

“We really did give it our all. We didn’t hold anything back, so it monopolized a lot of our time. Now we can start dreaming of what we can do with it.”

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