Clark Magnet Kelp Huggers Win Lexus Eco Challenge

By Samantha SLAYBACK

This year marks the eighth anniversary of the national scholarship competition, the Lexus Eco Challenge. The Lexus Eco Challenge empowers teens grades six through 12 across the United States to learn more about the environment and encourages steps to make it better, not only for their communities but for the rest of the world. Recently, Scholastic, a co-sponsor of the competition, announced that this year’s winners were Clark Magnet High School’s Environmental GIS – Geographic Information System – team, the Kelp Huggers.

One instructor and nine students make up the Kelp Huggers. Led by Dominique Evans-Bye, students Xochil Garcia, Maya Ramamurthy, Virginia Aviles, Henry Bagumyan, Laura Dandachi, Kamran Jahadi, Biura Markarian, Trevor Norman and Mary Rshtouni worked together to help bring awareness to the prominent issue of marine debris.

The Kelp Huggers chose to target marine debris because hundreds of thousands of marine organisms are being killed each year by trash that makes its way from land into oceans. By joining forces with a campaign known as Litterati, the Kelp Huggers were able to spread their message to make a bigger impact.

Litterati is an Instagram movement that originated in the San Francisco Bay area thanks to creator Jeff Kirschner. People take pictures of litter they see, post their picture with the hashtag #Litterati and then throw the trash away. The idea is to encourage everyone to pick up litter they see around their neighborhoods in order to make the world a cleaner place.

“For our project, we expanded Literatti to include debris found in the ocean as well,” explained Ramamurthy. “We then retrieved this debris by using our Underwater Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV).”

Instructor Evans-Bye explained the process they went through to retrieve the underwater debris.

“We worked with the Ocean Defenders Alliance to clear the docks at the Channel Island Harbor of marine debris,” Evans-Bye shared. “Students piloted the ROV in near zero visibility by using the BlueView imaging sonar to locate and navigate to targets under the water.”

While some of the smaller pieces of debris could be picked up with the ROV, larger pieces had to later be retrieved by ODA divers, one of whom was former Clark Magnet student and Eco Challenge winner Zane Toyon.

Along with their physical efforts to remove the waste, the Kelp Huggers have also made great strides in spreading the word about the issue at hand. They have presented their ideas to peers and parents, as well as scientists and GIS professionals at the Esri Ocean GIS Forum and the Los Angeles County GIS Day Event. They have also received nearly 100 requests from ocean educators around the world for their poster and lesson plan advocating a ban on micro-plastics.

However, the Kelp Huggers aren’t stopping there. The team has the opportunity to win an even bigger prize of up to $30,000 in the next phase of their project.

“For the next step of our project, we are focusing on microplastics in soaps, shampoos and toothpaste – plastics that are too small to be filtered out of wastewater by treatment plants,” Ramamurthy explained. “We are expanding a campaign to ban microplastics in hygienic products, and have made a poster with a pledge to stop using products with micro beads.”

The group’s recent winnings will go towards future college tuition of student participants as well as an unmanned aerial vehicle Evans-Bye intends to use for environmental projects incorporating remote sensing.

“I am very proud of our team for winning this challenge,” said Dandachi. “We worked so hard and it definitely paid off in the end.”

To track the Kelp Huggers’ progress, visit their online map at or visit their website for recent updates at