Belleville students create app to detect lead in water

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — When one thinks of app creation, Silicon Valley comes to mind. And when one thinks of scientific exploration to solve societal problems, older professors and researchers come to mind. But robotics students at Belleville High School bucked those stereotypes when they created an app that can detect lead in drinking water. This invention helped the BHS team become one of 20 finalists in Samsung Electronics America Inc.’s 10th annual Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest.

The national competition challenges students in grades six through 12 to use STEM to inspire change in their communities. On May 27, the 20 finalist teams presented their projects in virtual presentations in front of a panel of judges for the chance to win $100,000 in technology and to be named one of five national winners.

Belleville students did well in their presentation and ended up winning $50,000 in prize money. The app they created allows a smartphone to work with a 3D-printed container to take a picture of a water sample and determine the level of lead in it.

“The prototype uses dark-field microscopy to detect lead when sample water and a reagent are placed in a viewer and green light envelopes the sample. The smartphone will allow the user to upload the photo that will use the fluorescence of the sample compared to a concentration curve to determine the concentration of the sample,” Joy Alfano, the BHS science teacher who advised the student team, told the newspaper. “It is our hope that, in the future, anyone with a smartphone can not only use this technology to determine lead levels in drinking water, but that the technology and application can be adapted for further use in dark field microscopy and the use of smartphones to detect other substances, allowing for citizen science — citizens to be able to virtually collaborate on environmental monitoring within their own communities.” 

For more information on the project, view the students’ pitch online at

“Students in our prototyping and robotics class and the Robotics Club were tasked with solving a problem within our school and local community,” Alfano said of the project’s start. “Students were paired into teams and each came up with a problem and a possible solution using STEAM. Our team and class then voted on a project. 

“The project was to research and find a solution to the recent lead contamination issues and to design a project that would assist residents of Belleville,” she continued. “Three solutions were researched further: a detection cup and monitoring system that would allow residents to detect low levels of lead in drinking water, a filtration system that filters out heavy metals including lead in our local waterways, and a pipe overlay system that would assist engineers and officials as they replaced water mains by replacing pipes without trenching. After research, interviews with industry and scientific experts, and discussion with local waterway experts, the students’ choice was to focus on a product called NuView, a system that would use dark field microscopy and a smartphone to detect low levels of lead in resident drinking water. Students developed a dark-field enclosure and printed it on a 3D printer and developed a code to allow the phone to take a picture of a sample of drinking water with an added reagent using only green light. The photo can then be used to detect low-level lead concentrations.”

In the video, Belleville Mayor Michael Melham discussed the importance of such STEM innovation.

“The older treatment that many, many water treatment facilities were using throughout the country had been failing,” Melham said. “Many, many treatment facilities throughout the country have knowingly been failing. Newark was aware of it. They tried changing the chemical concoction — it wasn’t really working.”

A student then explained in the video the serious medical issues that can be caused by lead ingestion.

“In order to prevent lead poisoning in our community, the Belleville Robotics Team brainstormed ideas to tackle the lead crisis,” she said. “In the future we hope to use citizen science as part of our project. We would like to make an open domain map for the public so that its ease of use and data can be shared around the world.”

Ordinarily, the finalist teams would present their projects live before a panel of judges, but this year, due to COVID-19, Samsung moved the presentations to a virtual format, leaving the student teams to reorganize their presentations.

“We transformed the final part of our program from an in-person event to a virtual experience that would give these hardworking and resilient students a moment to shine in a different way, celebrating an important milestone and recognizing each student’s hard work throughout the entire school year,” said Ann Woo, senior director of corporate citizenship at Samsung Electronics America. “While the 10th annual celebration of the national finalists and national winners will look different than planned, the spirit of this program goes on, and Solve for Tomorrow will continue to give a voice to these young changemakers across the nation. We look forward to hearing from these inspiring students and teachers and virtually experiencing their creative, community-building STEM solutions.”

The Belleville students had already been working virtually to complete their pitch when it was announced that the trip to New York to present in person had been canceled.

“The students worked many hours online in virtual preparation and meetings,” Alfano said. “Of the 13-person team, along with student support to create our video, the students choose three students to represent them for the trip to New York. Once the trip became virtual, the three students used virtual meetings to assist in planning and practicing the pitch with support from their team members.”

Alfano said she was “extremely proud” of the students, both for their innovative work and for rolling with the punches of having to shift to a virtual presentation.

“They have worked so incredibly hard over the last academic year and I am thankful to Samsung for this platform to showcase our students’ hard work and dedication to their community,” Alfano said. “The students and I are honored and humbled to have won the $50,000 prize money from this program, which will be used to expand our science and technology programs. I think that this award shows the hard work and dedication of our students.”

BHS Principal Caleb Rhodes is similarly proud of his students, as well as Alfano for her leadership.

“As principal of one of the national finalist teams, I know that Belleville High School has a strong future led by teacher leaders like Dr. Joy Alfano, who truly puts her heart and soul into everything she works on, from project-based learning to grant writing and setting her students up for success,” Rhodes said. “Under her guidance, the students from the robotics class and Robotics Club came up with an innovative solution to a major concern facing our community at this time and have successfully and clearly presented their plan through three rounds of this competition. The community at Belleville High is proud of the efforts of Dr. Alfano and our students.”