Westemeier and Mandic qualify for International Science and Engineering Fair

On Mar. 1, junior Bora Mandic and sophomore Huxley Westemeier advanced to the International Science and Engineering Fair from the Advanced Technology Projects class.
On Mar. 1, junior Bora Mandic and sophomore Huxley Westemeier advanced to the International Science and Engineering Fair from the Advanced Technology Projects class.
Submitted by Huxley Westemeier

On Mar. 1, 27 students participated in the annual Twin Cities Regional Science Fair (TCRSF) in Falcon Heights. This group brought a total of 32 awards home and 23 students advanced to the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. Sophomore Huxley Westemeier and junior Bora Mandic directly advanced to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), with juniors Talia Cairns and Finn Cairns named as ISEF first and second alternates respectively.

Suits and blazers on and posters set up, the two hundred students were presentation-ready at 2 p.m. as they waited for TCRSF judges to visit each of their stations. When others had already received five judges, Westemeier and Mandic hadn’t received any. The tension started off high.

“It was helpful that Huxley was right next to me because we could talk, but [the waiting period] was a very draining process,” Mandic added. It wasn’t until two hours into the fair that Mandic met his second judge and Westemeier’s first judge – the ISEF judge.

With five years of programming experience, Mandic developed a mobile app which utilizes machine learning to help colorblind people drive at night. During daytime driving, colorblind people depend on the position of the lights in the frame: red is top, yellow is middle and green is bottom. However, when driving at night, the frame is no longer visible. Thus, they have to use other context clues like light duration and the number of cars stopped to tell the traffic signals.

“I had about 5,000 images the machine learning model trained on and 900 images it tested on… My dad is colorblind, so he talks a lot about how difficult it can be for him to drive at night, and I kind of wanted to help him out,” Mandic said.

During testing, Mandic drove around for half an hour with his dad. Mandic’s software recognizes traffic lights from 150 feet away and transforms the light color into text and audio. “Right now the app has an accuracy of about 97%, but I want to make it even better and faster so it can be more safe. I also want to extend its capabilities like making it available for daytime driving as well,” Mandic said.

Despite both being in the competition category of Systems Software, Westemeier’s project focused on cyber security and encryption, which differed almost entirely from Mandic’s project.

Encryption is the process of encoding information and converting original text into an alternative form. People can then decipher the alternative text to access the original information. Westemeier developed a new quantum-resistant encryption algorithm, which is a sequence of new coding instructions developed to enable storage of larger gigabytes of computer files using less space. In Westemeier’s project, he was trying to maximize compression while maintaining security using encryption.

“Encryption is everywhere now. Every time I open my laptop and enter my password, I am decrypting my files. When you use facial ID to unlock a phone, it’s basically decrypting your data to open up the lock,” Westemeier said.

Inspired by “The Code Book,” Westemeier who has always loved linguistics and puzzle solving became drawn to cryptography and encryption. “I wanted to first start with the text version where you would encode a message within the text: hello. Once I had this working prototype, I made it work with files and photos in a more effective manner. My project was able to showcase that you can store 68% more information in the same image of encrypted data,” Westemeier said.

It feels better to do a project that makes you happy while you’re doing it but also has a real-world impact on your life.

— Bora Mandic

During his presentation, Westemeier used the pixel-level modification method to showcase that he was able to encrypt the whole Gutenberg Bible into a single image. The original image and the resulting encrypted image had nearly no noticeable difference. Westemeier was able to demonstrate how his new algorithm was more effective in storing more information by comparing the encrypted file sizes of different methods.

“I think one of the toughest questions was to explain to them how this new method [of encryption] is secure. It’s really hard to prove that something’s unbreakable, so I drew other proofs… analyzing took the longest time,” Westemeier explained.

When talking about their successes, Mandic gave the advice for others to also choose something that they find meaningful and feel passionate about. “I would say to choose a topic you’re actually passionate about or something that really affects you in real life. It feels better to do a project that makes you happy while you’re doing it but also has a real-world impact on your life,” Mandic said.

As ISEF qualifiers, Westemeier and Mandic will compete at the Los Angeles Convention Center in early May.

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