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Cyber-Mission Accomplished

Irving seventh-grader Cody Dowd is named regional champion in the U.S. Army’s eCyberMission science competition.

By his own admission, Cody Dowd isn’t really into science projects. The Washington Irving Middle School student has definitely gotten the hang of them, however.

Cody, a seventh-grader at Irving in Springfield, was part of a team that took first place in the Southeast Region for the U.S. Army’s 2003 eCyberMission science and technology competition.

“Science projects aren’t really my thing,” said Cody. “This was sort of a science project, but it was more. eCyberMission was a great way to involve kids into the world.”

U.S. Army representatives awarded a $3,500 savings bond to Cody on Wednesday, Dec. 8, in a ceremony at the school. The award was for Cody and a team of three other middle-schoolers making it to the national round of the competition.

Cody, who is starting his first year at Irving, moved to Springfield this summer with his family. His father, Col. Ken Dowd, is an executive officer for the Army’s G4 branch, which handles logistics.

Cody competed in the eCyberMission competition last school year, while a sixth-grader at the Department of Defense’s middle school in Heidelberg, Germany. He and three of his classmates formed a team, which they called “Soon To Be Rich,” and entered the competition, having heard about it from their teacher.

Just as if it would with a school science project, Cody’s team had to come up with a problem to be solved, form a hypothesis, and run a series of tests to arrive at a conclusion.

Sponsored by the U.S. Army, eCyberMission is a free; Web-based; science, math and technology competition for students in grades six to nine.

“It takes the science fair out of the gymnasium and puts it into cyberspace,” said Kelly Stratchko, the competition’s project manager for the U.S. Army.

Competing teams must come up with a project to tackle in the categories of Health and Safety, Arts and Entertainment, Sports and Recreation, or the Environment. Teams are encouraged to collaborate online to find out more about their topic, and when the project is completed, it must be presented in the form of a “Mission Folder,” which is submitted through the official competition Web site, www.eCyberMission.com.

HAVING WATCHED the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on television from Germany when he was in fourth grade, Cody and his team realized that they wanted to tackle the problem of air safety.

“When Sept. 11 happened, we were shocked by it, and we wanted to prevent that from happening [again],” said Cody. “We wanted to prevent terrorist attacks in the air.”

Multiple brainstorming sessions later, the team came up with its conclusion. With the help of the father of one of his teammates, who ran an Army flight simulator, the team came to its hypothesis: A heart-rate monitor on an aircraft pilot would be keyed to a notification system that would signal ground control if the heart rate rose above a predetermined level. If ground control deemed it necessary, it could remotely guide the plane to safety.

“If something was going wrong with the pilot, ground control could take over the plane,” said Cody. “The pilot might be injured, but the rest of the crew would be safe, and the damage that could have been done with the plane couldn’t have happened.”

This kind of a system, said Cody, would have been particularly helpful during the events of 9/11. Of course, the team's conclusion meant many hours of fine-tuning. The team first got together in August 2003, and it submitted its project in January 2004.

“We wanted to monitor the camera the whole time, but that would have been too much with the privacy issues, and stuff like that," said Cody. "We couldn’t have a drone fly the plane, because you wouldn’t really want a computer flying your plane. The heart rate was the easiest way we could think of. We stuck with it, and it worked out.”

GETTING THE project in was only the first step. Since team members were stationed in Europe, the team competed against other teams in the Southeast Region. Regional judging ran from February through mid-March, and the team was notified that it had won in April.

It was at that point — when Cody’s team found out it had won the Southeast Region title — that his parents began to realize this was quite an accomplishment.

“I thought it’s another science club he’s been involved in, and I really didn’t understand the whole concept of what eCyberMission was,” said Dowd’s mother, Jennie.

Cody Dowd, of course, knew exactly what winning the Regional title meant — a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete for the national title, along with tours of major historical landmarks and the latest technological advances at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md.

“I didn’t really sleep that night,” said Cody. “I was running over all these things in my head.”

At the national competition, Cody and his team had to present a “standard” science fair presentation, complete with a cardboard backboard. Team members also had to verbally explain their project to a panel of judges. They spent months working on their presentation, making presentations to classes at school and to their parents.

“I was blown away by their idea, and where they got [it]. Sometimes we forget the impact 9/11 had on our children, and these boys nailed it,” said Jennie Dowd. “It really frightened them that they would be taking commercial flights from Europe, at some point in time … and they saw how unsafe our world had become.”

For making the regional finals and placing in the top two spots, Cody and each member of his team received $3,000 in U.S. savings bonds. If they had won the national competition, it would have meant another $5,000 in savings bonds. He had to settle for $3,500 in bonds, bringing his total to $6,500.

Getting the chance to compete in and win a competition like eCyberMission was an extraordinary experience for Cody, but his mother said his upbringing has prepared him for the challenge. Jennie Dowd said Cody has attended five different schools and “been the new kid more often than not.” That has been hard, but she said his travels have expanded his understanding of the world around him, and his proximity to the work of his father — who has served two tours in Iraq and led Support Command for the 4th Armored Division during one of those tours — has also contributed to his understanding.

“I think being around the military, Cody has a better understanding of his world,” she said. “I think he understands culture a little bit better, because he’s been exposed to so many.”

The deadline for registration for this year’s eCyberMission competition ended on Monday, Dec. 13, and Cody has formed another team, this one at Irving. They haven’t decided what their project will be yet, but he’s aiming for another trip to Washington, D.C.

“It’s really hard to believe that my team and I did this, got the trip to Washington, D.C., all this recognition,” he said. “It’s really cool.”