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Best and Brightest 2017: Overcoming technological adversity motivates teen

By: CAROL MCGRAW, Special to The Gazette
April 18, 2017 Updated: April 18, 2017 at 8:24 pm
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This is the third of 20 profiles of The Gazette's Best and Brightest Class of 2017.

There are computer problems and then there are really bad computer problems.

Just ask Holly Rieping who almost ruined a chance of a lifetime in the "Captain America Civil War - Girls Reforming the Future" competition last year.

The Air Academy High School senior is no computer newbie, having immersed herself in software programming since grade school.

She helped establish the Department of Defense-sponsored Starbase Academy at Peterson Air Force Base to inspire science and technology learning in underprivileged fifth-graders. During school breaks, she helped teach 3-D computer-aided design, robotics, programming, physics, math and chemistry.

Many of the students are from groups historically underrepresented in STEM programs, she explained. "As an African-American female in STEM, I have had to overcome obstacles, and I hope I am a role model to the students."

Another success has been in programming. She developed and co-instructed a 20-hour programming curriculum for underprivileged youngsters in a summer program at Colorado Springs School District 11.

Rieping was raised in a military family, and was homeschooled until seventh grade. While in high school she has taken enough college credits, mostly in technology, to start as a sophomore.

When she was 16, she interned at the space operations department of Intelligent Software Solutions. There, she said, "I converted and integrated data to expand a transmitting satellite catalog into a common database to provide extra information to space engineers."

But then came the big computer crash.

She had signed up to compete in the Captain America competition sponsored by California-based Marvel Studios. Girls were invited to create a STEM-based project that would change the world. The participants had two weeks to complete their work from conception to finished product.

Rieping created a network of inexpensive mobile computers with safety surveillance (video) and educational capabilities run by solar power for use in global rural areas without access to internet. She used Raspberry Pi, a credit-card size computer, gathered the pieces for monitor and keyboard, and coded the operating system.

When everything was built and programmed she tried to boot the computer, and it failed.

"I freaked out, but my parents, who are engineers, said that is what happens in engineering, and I could solve it."

With late nights and lots of caffeine and Goldfish snacks, she was able to finish in time. She had to compile her very own first-of-its-kind, 64-gigabyte disk image from scratch that would be compatible. The image included more than 3,000 e-books and texts, health guides, educational videos, encyclopedias and a program to allow a Wi-Fi camera to stream directly to the computer.

She was chosen by Marvel as one of five finalists out of 1,137 contestants nationwide. She was flown to Los Angeles where she presented her work and networked with experts and executives.

"I had never felt as accepted as a minority woman in STEM as I did then," Rieping said.

She and the other young women got to walk the red carpet at the premiere of the "Captain Marvel" movie.

"When Robert Downey Jr. said we would change the world, I knew I was right where I was supposed to be."

She will be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall. She hopes she will have time to perfect her winning project.

No, she hasn't had time to think of a cute name for it.

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