Schenectady County

Mohonasen student to study climate in S. Africa

Ruben McWilliams solves problems. As a freshman at Mohonasen High School this year, he created an ap
Ruben McWilliams
Ruben McWilliams

Ruben McWilliams solves problems.

As a freshman at Mohonasen High School this year, he created an app to make taking attendance easier on substitute teachers. The app essentially allows students to check in on their phones and was used in his homeroom.

Also this year, he developed another app to help his school’s IT department handle teachers’ requests for computer help. That program uses a digital ticket system to keep the requests organized and could be implemented next year, he said.

Last year, for his Eagle Scout project, McWilliams, now 15, built a garden next to the Boys & Girls Club in Rotterdam to stop soil from eroding into the parking lot every time it rained.

McWilliams’ next challenge: climate change.

Next week, McWilliams will bring his innovative skills to Pretoria, South Africa, where climate change is having significant effects on the water cycle. He was one of 120 students from the United States, Bolivia, Panama and South Africa, out of hundreds of applicants, selected for the Association of American Geographers’ Global Connections and Exchange: My Community, Our Earth Youth TechCamp.

“I obviously like to create things and I’ve had tons of ideas throughout my life on how to make things better,” McWilliams said over the phone Wednesday from Camp Boyhaven, a Boy Scout Camp in Middle Grove where he is a counselor in training. “And I’m just so excited that I get to work with other kids to make things that hopefully, actually, will get used.”

For 10 days, starting Monday, McWilliams will join nine other U.S. students and 30 students from Pretoria on a fact-finding mission. They will use geographic technologies to study the effects of climate change on the local community and implement local projects.

Those effects could include floods, droughts, the presence of sinkholes and agricultural changes, said Patricia Solis, AAG director of research and outreach.

“When you have changes in the water cycle, it really affects the agricultural production and the availability of food,” she said.

Another team of 40 students worked in La Paz, Bolivia, last month and another 40 students will be in Panama City, Panama, in late July.

To be selected, McWilliams wrote a four-page essay and went through a phone interview process after his mother, a geographer, told him about the program. Students had to demonstrate interest in traveling internationally, familiarity with geographic technology, leadership skills and community-service experience.

“I’ve always been into technology, from computer programming to regular stuff,” he said. “My mom’s a geographer, too. So my two passions and what’s around me intertwined.”

Solis said the camp could be “life-changing” for the young students because it allows them to experience a different part of the world as more than a tourist. The experience also can inspire them to consider careers as geographers, she said. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State.

“You’re really getting involved and asking questions, and thinking about what’s going on in the environment and how all of us are affected,” she said.

McWilliams and his camp cohorts will also be trained in the use of technologies such as online mapping, community GIS, mobile GPS and crowd mapping and will take part in cultural exchange activities.

McWilliams has a jump start on mapping technologies, having used a program called ArcGIS to map areas in Rotterdam. His mother bought him the program after he expressed an interest in mapping a few years ago.

“What I like to do is whenever I’m somewhere, a lot of times I think about how you would map it out if I were to put it into a program,” he said.

McWilliams is looking forward to taking those mapping skills overseas.

“There’s something about going into somewhere that’s so different from your daily point of view of the world and getting to explore,” he said. “Just something that makes it amazing for me.”

His training won’t stop when he returns from Pretoria. His 40-member team will continue to collaborate online into the fall to finish their projects, which will be showcased at national venues.

“We keep working on it,” he said. “And if it’s actually good enough, we actually can present it to the president.”

As for his future, McWilliams hopes to combine his interests in mapping and technology into a career.

“I love geography, but I really, really love technology,” he said. “So I might even develop the software for geographers.”

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