UH Hilo team to compete in Microsoft US Imagine Cup 2016 finals

The computer science students developed a program that guides users in choosing the plant species that are most beneficial for restoration projects.

By Shalyn Lewis.

 Anthony Vizzone, Pauleen Pante, Bryson Fung and Reuben Tate.
Team No Sleep (l-r): Anthony Vizzone, Pauleen Pante, Bryson Fung and Reuben Tate.

Four seniors from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo are on their way to the Microsoft Imagine Cup US finals held March 31 in San Francisco. Team No Sleep members Bryson Fung, Pauleen Pante, Reuben Tate and Anthony Vizzone are participating in the advanced division of the competition, under the category of World Citizenship. This division of the Imagine Cup is a global competition, with efforts specifically geared toward changing the world for the better.

Tate, a mathematics and computer science major and the team’s mathematics coordinator, says their program is designed with the intent of improving restoration efforts.

Restoring Ecosystems Services Tool (REST)

“We have developed a program that guides users in choosing what species of plants are most beneficial for their restoration goals,” he says. “It does this by looking at properties of each plant species, called functional traits, and seeing which plants are functionally similar to one another via a statistical approach called principal components analysis.”

Fung, a computer science major and the lead programmer elaborates, “(The program is) called Restoring Ecosystems Services Tool, or REST for short. Depending on your purpose, the program can help you build ecosystems that are more fire resistant, more preventative of invasive species, or having more carbon storage (giving ecosystems longer lifespans). The list goes on.”

The tool uses trait and data restoration goals to help build ecosystems tailored to the need of the client.

“Biologists will be using the program to help restore the functionality of the local environment,” says Vizzone, a computer science student and the database manager of the team.

Pante is the team leader. She believes their project could do some serious good for Hawai‘i and eventually have a global impact.

“Around the world, various plant ecosystems are in decline due to factors such as invasive plants, human activity, and plant disease,” she explains. “Restoring these ecosystems is a difficult task since more times than not, it is nearly impossible to restore the ecosystem back to its original state. As a solution, researchers can instead restore ecosystem function by introducing non-native yet non-invasive plants that are similar to their native counterparts as a means of maintaining such ecosystem function. Still, finding similar plants with similar functional traits is not trivial. That is where our program comes in.”

Opportunities at UH Hilo

Team No Sleep has come a long way, and they say it’s thanks to UH Hilo’s supportive environment and fantastic professors, faculty, and staff.

Tate says, “I think our entire team would like to thank Professor Keith Edwards of the computer science department. He’s been extremely supportive of our group ever since we started this venture back in the fall of 2015 and he’s been there every step of the way. Our team wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Pante says Professor Rebecca Ostertag is the driving force for the project.

“Our program was originally based on her research and she has helped us every step of the way,’ says Pante.

Tate says there are a host of opportunities at UH Hilo if you’re willing to look for them.

“The faculty here at UH Hilo, in the math and computer science departments in particular, is extremely supportive.”

Changing the world for the better

Team No Sleep is heading to the Microsoft US Imagine Cup finals in San Francisco, California, where they will present their project on March 31 along with students all over the nation. Finalists will compete for a chance to win $4,000, startup and tech cred, and an opportunity to advance to the Global Imagine Cup finals for the $50,000 prize.

“When I found out we were finalists for the Microsoft Imagine Cup, it dawned on me that our program is much more than just some little class project and that it has the potential to make a difference,” says Tate.

“The competition itself is a good way to expose our application to the world and winning the competition would definitely increase that exposure,” he says. “We want our product to make an impact around the world so the more people that are interested in it and the more exposure our program receives, the better.”

The team has big plans for the future. Having REST recognized as a necessary beneficial tool for our global environment has sparked ideas for the future.

Pante says, “I would like to see our project expand beyond the scope of Hawai‘i. We hope to generalize it for use around the world. The process of finding compatibility between plants can be even used by landowners and in gardens.”

Fung states, “My goal in this project is to get people to take a look at our program and consider using it for their own personal projects. I hope that our program does become more than it is now. I hope that the name becomes popular enough to be recognized instantly within the right circles.”

Tate says, “I’m glad that our program is seen as something important that can make a positive impact for a lot of people. We hope that our program will be used by people, organizations, and government agencies around the world in an effort to help restore (global) ecosystems.”

Learn more about the Restoring Ecosystems Services Tool or REST program and its creators.


About the author of this story: Shalyn Lewis is a student writer for the UH Hilo Marketing Office.