Agriculture, Education December 01, 2022
Engineer farmer brings high-tech science to rural kids.
Pride drips from Chuck Merja—sometimes right out of the corners of his eyes—as he brags on the bright students he's mentored throughout 20 years as the Sun River Robotics Club coach.
The Sun River, Montana, farmer sits in the jumbled chaos of the club's headquarters recalling assorted science fair projects and robots kids from the tiny farming community have created. Books on coding, sensor programming, physics and robotics are stacked precariously on shelves littered with components, tools, 3-D printing resin spools, computers, motors and robotic contraptions.
Three of those contraptions are world champion engineering feats. Merja, a mechanical engineer who quit a job with Hewlett-Packard to return to the farm he loved, has inspired enthusiasm for STEM in his community and coached three FIRST Tech Challenge World Robotics championship teams.
"My generation had Kennedy saying, 'We're going to the moon.' Eight years later, the average age in the moon landing control room was 26. Those were 18-year-old kids inspired to go into technology by Kennedy. What do we have like that today?" Merja wonders.
Maybe the world robotics championship? Merja says it's uplifting to see 15,000 nerdy kids from 19 countries under one roof for five days showing off their stuff. "It gives me hope."
Merja may not be Kennedy, but a member of his original champion team just graduated from MIT.
Beyond robotics, Merja has also assisted area kids with 4-H, FFA, community and science fair projects.
Baylee Herman, now a senior, worked on her first project with Merja as a 6th grader. She programmed a feed and water monitoring system for her 4-H pigs. "She has a real knack for programming," Merja boasts.
In 7th grade a passion for pediatric cardiology had her working with Merja to print a layer of E. coli (not the bad kind) cells as a start to bio-printing a human heart.
Recently, Merja challenged Herman to tackle a tough agricultural problem—jointed goatgrass.
Jointed goatgrass is a winter annual weed with a lifespan and appearance similar to wheat. It's hard to detect and treat.
Their strategy was to GPS-tag areas with goatgrass at harvest to guide treatment later. This would be accomplished using a camera in the hopper able to identify jointed goatgrass seed. That meant teaching the computer to differentiate a goatgrass seed from wheat.
"The computer needs data for AI learning, so I had to provide data and teach the computer so it could identify seeds in real time. I spent hours taking pictures of goatgrass seeds," Herman says.
They took photos in different lighting and with varying background colors, building up to a wheat background with success.
"It was a ton of work, but I learned a lot about AI," she says." Chuck says, 'Showing up is half the battle.' These challenges have taught me persistence. If something doesn't work, I just try another angle."
Creative thinking and the brain flexibility needed to learn new skills and work a problem are Merja's legacy in the community.
"Robotics makes kids think strategically, mechanically, and about programming all while working together," Merja says. They're skills that will serve his students well— those that return to the farm and those headed for the lab. ‡
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