Milo Shan shares inspiration behind award-winning water conservation project

Yu Tang “Milo” Shan, a 17-year-old from Johannesburg, was curious when he noticed that the sprinklers in his neighbourhood were being turned on at illogical times. This, along with his awareness of South Africa being a water-scarce country, led him to begin experimenting with different types of soil moisture modelling methods.

The St John’s College learner embarked on an investigation into which machine learning algorithm would produce the most accurate high-resolution soil moisture model. This resulted in the research project entitled, “SMARter: Soil Moisture Artificially Intelligent Regression in a domestic garden environment to conserve water”.

“I collected and compiled a multimodal dataset of the environmental parameters of my garden and used it to train several machine-learning algorithms. I then evaluated the accuracy of the soil moisture predictive models created by these machine-learning algorithms,” he says.

“To my knowledge, this is the first effort to evaluate machine-learning models trained using the specific type of data that I collected, especially in a South African context. In my results, I found that the Random Forest machine-learning algorithm was able to produce a model accurate enough for it to be used in applications such as intelligent irrigation systems,” he adds.

The first-generation South African-born Chinese learner exceeded his expectations when he entered Eskom Expo for Young Scientists for the first time in 2022 and ended up winning several awards at Eskom Expo’s annual International Science Fair.

These included a gold medal; the Top Senior Scientist Award; the top project in the Computer Sciences and Software Development category; the SAICE Water Engineering Division award; and the Eskom Best Innovation Project.

“I was very surprised at first since I did not expect to win many awards at all. However, once it all sunk in, I felt really happy that I performed above my expectations. I also felt relieved that I was one step closer to achieving my dream of making a positive difference in the world, and I felt more confident that I would have what it takes to walk the long road to my dream,” he says.

Talking about his experience at Eskom Expo, Shan says he enjoyed talking to the judges.

“I received some very valuable feedback from them, and they offered many perspectives and considerations that I had never thought of. I was also just really happy to talk to people that were genuinely interested and excited about what I did. It made me feel acknowledged and motivated to continue chasing my dreams,” he says.

When he’s not on a mission to conserve water, Shan spends his time creating art, playing the piano and reading books.

“If I’m feeling really lazy, I’ll watch TV and YouTube and play some video games. I’ll often go out with friends when I have the chance, too,” he says.

While having a very broad range of interests, Shan is currently unsure of his future endeavours, but one thing he’s sure about is remaining on the STEMI path.

“I was introduced to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and innovation (STEMI) at a very young age in the form of documentaries and encyclopaedias.

I was drawn to the excitement I felt when I peered into the deep, dark abyss that lies beyond humanity’s realm of knowledge and imagined the limitless possibilities that lie in wait. From a more practical standpoint though, I think that STEMI is the fundamental driving force behind our society’s progression; therefore, I feel that it would be worthwhile and fulfilling for me to channel my efforts into this area,” he says.

“What I want to acquire from my studies is a good understanding of the current situation of our world, so I can do something that has a lasting positive impact on our society,” he adds.

Registration to take part in Eskom Expo is open. Learners in grades 4 to 12, along with learners from TVET colleges that are in NC2 to NC4, are invited to register their Eskom Expo projects by clicking here. Learners who registered before can click here to log in and update their details.

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