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Four Culver students qualify for international science fair competition

Tom Coyne

Cherry (Qinyu) Zheng ’25, Tony (Zitong) Zhou ’25, William (Minran) Wang ’25 and Samuel (Zhenhe)  Shi ’26 advanced to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. (Photo by David Lawrence)


Four Culver Academies students will travel to Los Angeles to present their scientific innovations and compete in the prestigious Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair.

Tony (Zitong) Zhou ’25, William (Minran) Wang ’25, Cherry (Qinyu) Zheng ’25 and Samuel (Zhenhe) Shi ’26 advanced out of the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair at Indiana University-Indianapolis on April 6 and earned free trips to the international competition May 11-17 in Los Angeles. They will compete against 1,800 other student projects from more than 60 countries for $8 million in scholarships and prizes.

“Four students from Culver going to ISEF is phenomenal because there’s only 18 students out of the entire state who go,” said David Lawrence, a senior instructor in computer science and engineering at Culver and the adviser to students entering the competition. “To have four of them come from the same school is amazing.”

The only other Indiana high school to have four students advance to the international competition was Carmel High School, which has six times as many students as Culver.


Tony (Zitong) Zhou ’25 with his project at the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. (Photo by David Lawrence)


Zhou, who finished first among all Indiana high school juniors, created a self-sensing pneumatic three-finger grasper that he wants to use for the intelligent evolution of soft robots. He said soft structures are generally incompatible with traditional rigid structures, saying a hard chip would eventually destroy a soft structure. He said he created a flexible sensing system that can be integrated into soft robotics.

“Soft robotics is better than traditional rigid robots because they don’t hurt people,” he said. “One of my motivations for using soft robotics is they are safe, and they resemble the human body.”

Zhou said he was working on a rigid robotics grasper he made when something went wrong, and it grasped his hand so tightly it hurt his hand.

“That made me question whether it is safe,” he said.

His long-term goal is to make something that resembles a human hand. He said he was inspired by an amputee friend.

“They live differently, and people look at them strangely. If  you can make it so it resembles a human body it will be easier for them,” he said.

Zhou is interested in studying math, physics or engineering in college.


William (Minran) Wang ’25 with his project at the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. (Photo by David Lawrence)


Wang, an ISEF finalist last year when he had a project to help stroke victims by using prosthetics to shorten the rehabilitation time for people who lose function of their arms, finished in second place among 11th graders this year for a dynamic robotic spinal brace with adaptive treatment for spinal deformities.

Wang was awarded the Yale Science and Engineering Association’s award for best engineering project by a high school student this year for his device aimed at helping people with scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis or people whose backs get out of alignment because of long periods of sitting.

The brace fits around a person and senses when a person’s spine is out of position and pushes it back into position.

Wang said he started by building a prototype then used foam models to test his device. He then tested it upon himself under the supervision of his parents.

“The brace won’t give you back 100 percent of your original mobility. It will help with your mobility,” he said.

Wang said the brace keeps certain areas of the spine stable while giving the person wearing it some degree of freedom to perform tasks, such as picking up things.

Wang said the device exerts no more pressure than 1.5 kilograms of force “which is in the acceptable range a body can take,” he said.

He said the brace has 26 pressure sensors that monitor the status of the spine and makes adjustments in the rings to correct any problems. It also uses 12 linear actuators to achieve different postures.

“It will learn the pattern so in the future using real-time inferences the brace could understand what type of spinal deformity they have and to what degree of severity and determine which treatment to use and how much force to apply,” he said.

Wang said going to ISEF last year taught him that the key is to have a holistic system that incorporates artificial intelligence.

“The structure of your mechanical design and the electronics all have to be above the standard they’re looking for,” he said. “So this year I have tried to improve on that aspect.”

Wang said he’s interested in medical devices because he sees them as ways to help people improve their lives through technology.

Wang said he plans to study mechanical engineer in college and also mathematics.



Cherry (Qinyu) Zheng ’25 with her project at the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. (Photo by David Lawrence)


Zheng became the first Culver Girls Academy student to advance to the international competition. She finished third among 11th graders. She created a robotic jellyfish aimed at protecting and restoring coral reef ecosystems.

Zheng said she came up with the idea because coral reefs provide environmental value, hosting more than 25 percent of all marine species on less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, and economic value. But the reefs are endangered because they are bleaching and dying because of warming water caused by climate change.

Zheng said she chose a jellyfish because she has an interest in them and because jellyfish are relatively isolated in the coral ecosystem, so she hopes fish won’t interfere with her robot.

Zheng said Lawrence helped her understand the engineering needed to create the jellyfish design.

“Instead of having a robot drive around, she wanted something that wouldn’t interfere with the habitat,” Lawrence said.

Zheng created the robotic jellyfish to collect gametes from “super corals,” which can handle warming oceans better, and drop larva populated blocks that will create new coral reefs.

She said her robotic jellyfish is less expensive than having divers do the work and also is safer because some fish species are poisonous. The robotic jellyfish also creates minimum wave disturbance, so it is better for the fragile coral reefs and for surrounding species.

“They’re already experiencing a lot of stressors. I don’t want to stress them again,” she said.

She has created three generations of jellyfish using a motor she bought online. Each generation has used an improved method to propel the robotic jellyfish because she wanted to imitate the movement of a jellyfish.

The most recent version uses six motors and a soft material for the fins, so it moves faster.

Zheng said she knew nothing about engineering before starting the project. She was awarded a certificate of merit and medallion for the Office of Naval Research – U.S. Navy/U.S. Marine Corps for demonstrating excellence in scientific or engineering research. She also was awarded the Marathon Health Award for Science in Health Promotion and Medical Innovation.

“I’m proud of myself because I spent a lot of time on this project,” she said.

She said she began working on the project during the summer of 2023 and continued when she could during school breaks.

Zheng said she plans to study marine biology in college.


Samuel (Zhenhe) Shi ’26 with his project at the Hoosier Science and Engineering Fair in Indianapolis. (Photo by David Lawrence)


Shi ’26 finished second among all Indiana 10th graders. He created a multi-use underwater robot arm that has three silicone-coated rubber fingers that can gently grasp objects and could be used for underwater rescue and to help with deep sea exploration.

Shi said one purpose of his robot arm is to help with underwater rescue and aid. He said he was motivated by the implosion of the submersible that imploded near the Titanic wreckage site last year.

“I wanted to make something that could help with the situation,” he said.

He said he later changed his idea to use the robot arm for underwater exploration.

The arm moves using hydraulic power to move four pipes to cause them to move.

“That’s how the robot arm works,” he said.

He originally planned to use air to move the pipes, but learned they would be crushed under the pressure of the water. That’s why he uses water hydraulics to move the pipes.

The arm would be attached to some sort of underwater vehicle, Shi said.

“It would primarily be used for transporting things that can be grabbed underwater,” Shi said. “This could be used for lifting fragile objects or organisms rather than hard, heavy objects.”

He said the arm could be used to collect things too deep in the ocean for people to reach. He said there are other applications for the robot arm.

He envisions eventually connecting two arms so they can be used like a pair of human hands to pick things up.

“So it can replicate what a human does to pick things up,” Shi said.

He said the robot arm could be used for medical surgeries to allow surgeons to use organs to look around organs instead of cutting through organs.

Lawrence said he is constantly amazed by what the students come up with on their own for their science projects. He said the students who reach this level find ways to troubleshoot obstacles when they surface.

“When they’re against the wall, most students go, ‘I can’t go any further.’ These students have the tools and say, ‘I know where to go from here’ or at least who to ask,” Lawrence said. “Some students, when they get to a question they don’t know the answer to, that’s the stopping point. These students become their own troubleshooters.”

This will be the third time Culver Academies is sending students to the international competition. Lawrence said he learns more about judging of the competition each year. He said students have to know the fundamentals of how their devices work.

“The judges are trying to see if you know the basics. You’re saying you have a graph in psi. Do you even know what psi stands for? Because if you don’t, they’re going to be wondering if you really did this project,” he said. “They’re going to be probing them on whether they know the fundamentals of the science concepts or the technology that they’re using.”


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