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Dublin High School Coder Hania Guiagoussou Wins Oracle Duke’s Choice Award for Java-based Water Saver Project 

November 8, 2015

DSC03720DUBLIN, CA–According to Forbes, computer science graduates have the highest starting salaries of any major. And an NPR report noted that “the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men” until 1984. The Apollo space program on-board flight software, critical to the Apollo 11 mission, was written by famed programmer Margaret Hamilton. Then something changed, and ever since, for reasons that are difficult to fully understand, men have dominated the lucrative computer science and engineering field.

We started our popular Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Series to profile inspiring women in STEM fields, and today we add Dublin High School junior and Java coder Hania Guiagoussou to that distinguished group.

151027_DukesChoiceAwards_0097Hania (as she is known by many) was born Rabha Al-Adaouia Guiagoussou in Montreal, Quebec to Amouna Mahamat Alio and Mahamat Hissein Guiagoussou. As a Canadian / Chadian / American, Hania is an example of Dublin’s diverse community. She is also a Java coder who was recently the youngest recipient of Oracle’s 2015 Duke’s Choice Award (which celebrates innovation in the use of Java technology) for her WaterSaver project.

That recognition, however, is just the latest in a series of awards for a project that began in Dublin High School’s Biology with Research class, which requires all students to complete a science fair project. Hania’s project, completed last year, was a top 3 project (out of 300 entries) in the computer science and mathematics category at the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair. From there Hania went on to enhance her WaterSaver project to tackle larger environmental issues in her home country of Chad, specifically the rapid disappearance of Lake Chad (now down to 20% of its original size). Her project won 3rd prize at the Toumai Innovation Competition during SITIC 2014 (a pan African technology conference held in Chad). She was the youngest Chadian winner, was awarded a cash prize of $10,000 and even met the President of Chad Idriss Déby. Locally Hania recently won a Dreammakers & Risktakers Award from the Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group.

I recently caught up with Hania and her family, who treated me to a sampling of African tea and coffee, in their Dublin home. Hania’s enthusiasm for technology and coding, and her conviction to be a role model for other teens, is infectious.

James Morehead: Before we talk about your WaterSaver project, for someone whose only impression of coding is what they see on TV or in the movies, what is coding all about?

Guiagoussou: “I thought coding was just guys in cubicles, everything you see on TV, I didn’t think it was fun, I didn’t think you could use your creativity, I thought it was just typing on a computer. It seemed boring.

“Now I view knowing how to code as super powers you can use to help others and change the world. I see coding as a way you can express your creativity and your artistic skills. I see coding as another outlet to express yourself.

“Coding is all about creativity, it’s all about problem-solving, it’s all about going on and not giving up. At first people may think coding is hard, I felt that way too at first, but I tell people that coding is fun and you can use code for what interests you.

“I started with Alice, which is a Java-based animation tool, and it was much easier to learn code using Alice because it’s so visual. My dad had tried to teach me coding and I thought it was so hard! But once I started playing with Alice and Greenfoot (another tool for learning Java programming) I saw the potential and I was hooked!”

Morehead: What was the process you went through to choose your Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair project?

Guiagoussou: It was actually my first science fair, and was a required part of the Biology with Research class at Dublin High School. It was very hard at first, I didn’t settle on the Water Saver project at first. My first idea was an herbal memory project, testing the effects of different types of tea on memory, but that didn’t work out. I asked my dad to help with ideas and he works on IOT (Internet of Things) and explained the concept. He recommended looking for a problem with a social impact, something big that would help people every day, and then it hit me: every single day I walk home from school I see lawn sprinklers going off even when it’s raining, and we’re in a drought. That was where the idea started and from there I brainstormed ideas with my dad and created an outline for the project.”

Morehead: Describe the Water Saver project, and what problems you had to solve.

WaterSaverSlideDeck.pptxGuiagoussou: “Water Saver optimizes the amount of water used to save water resources. It’s a Raspberry Pi-based system with sensors to detect the temperature and soil conditions, and a Java program to analyze the data being collected and outputs to control how much water is used. The design means it’s affordable and easy-to-use.

“The first problem was how to use Java with Raspberry Pi because most programs on that platform are coded in Python. I had to find a Java library which took a while. I also needed to find a way to simulate controlling the water flow and ended up using LEDs – if more water was needed the LED was solid red, if only a moderate amount of water was needed then flashing red, and if no water is needed the LED is off. I used a water fountain at the science fair for the water!

“I never gave up, I felt I had to work through the problems, because our teacher promised us a three percent grade bump for the project!”

Morehead: What was it like having your project judged at the science fair?

Guiagoussou: “The judges were very intimidating! They asked questions like how the Raspberry Pi system would survive in harsh conditions, or how would the system work with different types of plants that require different amounts of water. Going to the science fair really helped because it brought up questions I hadn’t thought of before and helped improve the project.”

Morehead: For students who have never been in a science fair before, what advice do you have?

Guiagoussou: “I’d give other students the same advice my dad gave me: look for a problem that’s really big right now, something that’s going on in your community right now, and look at that problem and how you can solve it. I think kids can do a lot more than people expect!”

Morehead: You’ve received a lot of attention for your project including from Oracle. How did that happen?

HANIA 13Guiagoussou: “It started at an ITU Young Innovators Competition in Sept 2014 in Chad. I went there not expecting any prizes, and just wanted to show girls what I could accomplish. For this competition I applied my project to the disappearance of Lake Chad, which is a huge environmental issue, so I was able to connect my work to problems in my home country. I thought about how my project could work with solar power for energy and scaling it up to support a larger area. I ended up receiving the 3rd place award, which included a cash prize of US$10,000, and even met the President of Chad!”

Morehead: Do you feel a responsibility to be a role model and are you comfortable with that role?

Guiagoussou: “I like being an inspiration and a role model for other kids. I feel like I’m just like other kids and can show them anything is possible. I can see myself in other kids and feel like I have the power to help other kids accomplish what I’ve accomplished.”

Morehead: How did you end up in Dublin?

IMG_0892Hania Guiagoussou: “I was born in Montreal, Quebec and my parents are from Chad, and we moved to Santa Clara, California when I was young, and moved back for a time when I was seven. About five years ago my parents were looking for a house and I found Dublin, saw it was a really nice place to live and begged my parents to move to Dublin. I even searched for a house in Dublin using Google and showed my parents!

“I really like Dublin, it’s very peaceful, quiet and safe. I love Dublin High School, everyone is really nice and the kids are really hard-working so I have someone to look up to.”

Morehead: Have you been back to Chad with your parents?

Guiagoussou: “Last year we went to Chad for the Pan African Competition. Chad is an amazing country in central Africa. I loved it there, everyone was so welcoming. I learned about my culture, the beauty and richness of Chad. Africa isn’t what you see on TV, it isn’t what you’d expect. Chad is a very developed country, it isn’t a village. All the kids had cell phones, they were connected and on Facebook! I was impressed at how connected the kids were.”

Morehead: Having lived in Montreal, and with parents from Chad, do you speak French?

Guiagoussou: “French and Arabic. In kindergarten my teacher told my parents that we should never speak only English at home, we should speak our native language, because you’ll always have English at school, on TV and everywhere. That really helped because without that advice I doubt I would speak Arabic right now. I’ve been lucky to learn three languages!”

Morehead: What has your experience been at Dublin High School?

Guiagoussou: “All of my friends are hard-working, which pushes me to work hard too. To keep going. I have a very positive environment in school which encourages me to do big things. I’ve also been a long distance runner in Track & Field.”

Morehead: Any ideas what are you going to pursue after high school?

Guiagoussou: “I’m working hard to get into the colleges that I want to, while keeping my promise to help other girls get involved in computer science. I hope that I can create more projects that impact people lives. I’m pretty sure I’ll pursue a degree in the tech field, like computer science.”

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