A device designed to keep horses on Sable Island away from human influences has garnered a group of Halifax students an opportunity to compete at an international science and technology competition in Washington, D.C., next month. 

The eight students, who are in grades 7 to 9 at Oxford School, designed the deterrent system for Sable Island horses for the FIRST Global Innovation Awards.

The students worked on the project as part of an after-school program called Imhotep's Legacy Academy. The program is a partnership between Dalhousie University and community groups that aims to increase knowledge of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields among students with African heritage, although it's open to any student.

Preserve wildness 

The device developed by the students would use motion sensors and high-frequency sound to keep the Sable Island horses away from humans and buildings in order to preserve their wildness.

It also would collect data stemming from its usage. The device has not yet been tested on Sable Island, but the group plans to meet with a Parks Canada representative soon to discuss putting the prototype to use.

Sable Horses horses greet each other

A band stallion and bachelor meet on the beach of Sable Island. (Sarah Medill/University of Saskatchewan)

Imhotep program manager John Aruagha-Ndukwe said initially, students thought about using scent as a deterrent, including a combination of apple cider vinegar and pepper. But they realized that the intense winds on Sable Island could impair the effectiveness of the device. So they turned instead to a sound deterrent.

Two weeks to prepare

The students won the robot design award at the qualifying round of the competition at the Nova Scotia Community College last fall — a remarkable feat, considering they only had two weeks to prepare.  

"The idea was to get the kids used to the competition and then prepare them for next year," said Aruagha-Ndukwe. "But the kids worked really hard. . . . They put in a lot of work and we're so happy to get the opportunity to go."

After that, they won another round of competitions at Acadia University. Then students then had to submit a synopsis of their project online, and the judges selected them for the international competition. Roughly 20 teams will compete, including just three from Canada.

Fundraising for trip

Grade 9 student Om Agarwal said his team is excited about the opportunity to compete in Washington. 

"The fact that all our hard work was rewarded was really great and the whole team was extremely happy," he said.

There's only one problem. It will cost about $16,000 to send all nine team members and chaperones. They've raised $8,000 already and are hoping to raise the rest before the competition, which runs from June 18 to 20.

The winning team at the Washington competition will receive $20,000 toward implementing their project and the two runners-up will receive $5,000.

Horse deterrent system

Students from Imhotep's Legacy Academy designed this system to keep horses on Sable Island away from human influences. (Imhotep's Legacy Academy)

"In our case, we would like to commercially mass-produce the system so it can actually benefit humankind," Agarwal said. "So Washington would be a really huge step in terms of progressing."

The students will also spend time in Washington at lectures on patenting, business and engineering design, and they get to present their design at the ceremony.

In addition to learning about the world of robotics, Agarwal said he learned a lesson about teamwork.

"During the course of learning and competing, we as a team have actually grown a lot," he said. "The involvement of everyone was pretty great and the fact that all of us participated and all of us came together with our ideas really helped us all."