Snowflake Students Design ‘Elk Detection System’ for National Competition

Mar 17, 2017

Snowflake is a small town in eastern Arizona. It’s got more deer and elk than people, and that can make it dangerous to navigate rural roads at night. That’s why students at Snowflake Junior High invented a system of flashing lights to warn drivers when a big animal is nearby. It’s an idea that will take them all the way to a national competition in New York.

Dylan Neff and Corynn Cottrell will represent Snowflake Junior High in New York.
Credit Melissa Sevigny


Eighth-graders Adrianna Berger and Kaika Burk remember exactly how they felt when they heard their project was a top ten finalist. Berger says, “I jumped up. I’m like, ‘Yes, we did it! We did it! We did it, Kaika!’” Burk adds, “And then all of us jump up and start celebrating.”

Prototypes of the elk detection system
Credit Melissa Sevigny

The “Solve for Tomorrow” competition hosted by Samsung is a big deal for this small school. Not just because the winners take home thousands of dollars’ worth of technology, although the kids are pretty excited about that. Their intention is to save lives.

Prototype, without the solar panel
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Berger remembers a near miss on a dark road: “My mom was driving with my grandma and a deer jumped across the road, and it landed on the hood of their car and bounded off.”

KayBree Raisor says it happens fast: “They dart across the road sometimes and some people almost get in collisions.”

So the students came up with an idea: a low-cost “elk detection system” that sits on top of fence posts. It’s a series of triangular boxes with solar panels on top and a tangle of batteries and circuit boards inside. Burk describes how it works: “There’s motion sensors that use infrared heat—they detect body heat as it passes through their range—and when it does it’ll strobe.”

His classmate Christian Watson adds, “So that’s why this works as night, cause it gives flashing lights which is meant to warn you, OK, there is a deer here, time to stop.”

Three dozen students worked on the project outside of class. They drew designs, wrote code, and engineered parts on a 3D printer. They also made an animated video to submit to the competition. Corynn Cottrell and Christian Watson say they had to master some new artistic talents for that part.  

Snowflake Junior High
Credit Melissa Sevigny

Cottrell says, “I basically drew up all the characters and scanned them into the computer and we animated them.” Watson says, “I was in charge of trying to make them move, make them waggle their tail or something, I don’t know…. Call up Disney, I deserve a reward, all right!”  

Mule deer near forest road
Credit Brady Smith, US Forest Service, Coconino National Forest

They also consulted Jeff Gagnon of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He says drivers need to be alert in northern Arizona’s high country, especially along the Mogollon Rim. He thinks the students’ system is good way to wake up drivers who just ignore “Watch for Elk” signs. 

“When you see flashing lights all the sudden you tend to respond to that, verses the same silhouette sign you’ve seen every mile for the past fifty miles,” Gagnon says.

Dylan Neff, 15, will represent his school for the final round of competition in New York City, along with Cottrell and their teacher Michael Eilertsen.

Neff says the project taught him anything is possible. “We’re a small town, but the fact we’re actually going to New York showed me that just because we’re in a small town doesn’t mean nothing we do is important; that anything we can do can have a big impact on a lot of people.”

And the students have high hopes, not just of winning a grand prize for their school, but of seeing their invention light up roads in rural Arizona someday. 

Along with a grand prize, Snowflake Junior High is in the running for a “Community Choice Award.” The school that gets the most votes on Twitter wins twenty thousand dollars in technology. Voting ends tonight.