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household waste app
COURTESY ISLA GLADSTONE Isla Gladstone weighs a batch of household waste, as part of the testing of her app to track household waste production. The app earned her a spot in the Project CS Girls competition.

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Isla Gladstone has invented an app that enables households to track how much recycling they produce. The app helped her become a finalist in a STEM competition this summer.

Prior to that, she came up with a prototype website to help put food banks in touch with nearby stores.

And she is still in middle school. 

Isla, an eighth-grader at Buzz Aldrin, came up with a prototype for Waste Watchers, a program that weighs how much recycling homes produce from week to week. 

The project landed her in the finals of the annual Project CS Girls competition in August. Because of COVID-19, however, the awards ceremony had to be held virtually. 

Project CS Girls was founded in 2013 by Pooja Chandrasekhar, who at the time was a sophomore in high school, to encourage more middle-school and high school girls to take an interest in computer science. 

A 2018 report from the National Science Foundation found that while women made up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they only constituted 28 percent of the workforce in science and engineering. In specific fields the numbers were lower, with women making up 15 percent of the workforce in engineering and 26 percent in computer and mathematical sciences. 

Research has indicated that boys and girls perform equally well in math and science, but girls often lose confidence in their math skills as early as elementary school. Factors such as gender expectations in STEM fields, or in male-dominated fields, and a lack of female role models are also linked to a drop-off in participation by girls in science-related subjects. 

The American Association of University Women has assembled a list of ways in which STEM education can be improved, including educating teachers on avoiding implicit and systemic gender biases; actively encouraging girls and women to take math and science classes; changing how classes are taught by showing how STEM classes connect to everyday life, and providing after-school and summer programs. 

Besides the competition, CS Girls has chapters at middle schools and high schools in which girls can work on STEM projects. 

The CS Girls chapter at Buzz Aldrin is advised by Daniel Taylor, who is also Isla’s homeroom teacher. She has been involved with the chapter since sixth grade.

This year was her second time in the Project CS Girls competition. Last year, her website helped put stores in touch with local food banks. Through the site, a food bank could put in a request for a specific item, and the stores would try to get it to them. She discovered during her research, and in talking with food banks, that there might be complications when it came to transporting perishable items. But she views the project as a good first step. 

“I’ve always found climate science and computer science to be really interesting,” she said about her decision to do Waste Watchers, and the tracking of household waste output, for her project. 

“When people talk about ‘Reduce, reuse and recycle,’ they often forget about the most important part: reduce,” Isla says in the video explaining the app.

The Environmental Protection Agency states that Americans produced a total of 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste – which includes garbage and recycling – in 2018, about 4.9 pounds per person per day. Of that amount, 146.2 million tons ended up in landfills. 

Isla decided to measure by weight for a particular reason: because of the energy needed to transport heavier loads of recycling. While many people have a perception of glass as being a more acceptable packaging material than plastic, Isla noted that glass is much heavier than plastic, which means that sanitation trucks have to use more fuel to transport it. 

She created Waste Watchers using Raspberry Pi – a computer keyboard that is popular for beginner coding projects – and a Wii Fit board. She was able to hack into the board and get it to transmit weights to a computer. A Wii Fit board was more appropriate than, for example, a bathroom scale because it had Bluetooth installed and could therefore transmit data, she said. 

Over the course of several weeks, Isla weighed items from the family’s household recycling and entered the data into the program. 

“It makes recycling more fun, to kind of compete with yourself [from week to week],” she said. One thing she did notice was that her family’s recycling output went down while she was testing the app, probably because the family was more conscious of how much was going into the bins every week. 

Isla had to put together a technical report and a video presentation to send to the judges. 

With Buzz Aldrin on remote learning, she has been continuing her science work as best she can, including through projects such as the American Museum of Natural History’s Science Alliance online program. 

She said she wants to continue studying science through high school and beyond, “like space science, that’s my favorite, or environmental science.” She is interested in astronomy and astrophysics, with a special focus on dark energy and dark matter.