February 25, 2021



Junior Geek of the Month: Theo Monnin’s ‘aerial activism’ pairs drone photography and conservation

For as long as he could remember, Theo Monnin had a poster of an SR-71 Blackbird aircraft hanging on his bedroom wall. As a kid, he enjoyed visits to The Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Now Theo is a 17-year-old senior at Raisbeck Aviation High School, next door to the museum he grew up visiting, in a Jet City that sparked ambitions around aviation and aerospace.

“As I got closer to high school, beginning to actually get into robotics and the idea of ​​STEM, I applied [to Aviation] and ended up getting in and it’s been a really good four years, ”Theo said.

And, despite the challenges of remote learning, it’s a good end to 2020 as Theo is GeekWire’s Junior Geek of the Month for December. The monthly honor, presented by Northern Trust, recognizes talented young innovators, creators and entrepreneurs in the Pacific Northwest.

Theo has excelled at Aviation High School, which is ranked No. 3 in Washington state by US News & World Report, earning a 3.95 GPA in coursework that includes robotics, physics, circuit board design and AP classes in literature, history and mathematics. He earned the school’s prestigious Wingman Award in 2017 and in combining his deep interests in aerospace and engineering, he created his own opportunity to be paired with a Blue Origin engineer as part of his school’s mentorship program.

Because Raisbeck doesn’t offer sports, Theo competes as a starting forward in varsity basketball for West Seattle High School. He has his fingers crossed that his final season, pushed back by the pandemic, could still happen.

Basketball is a bit different than the ball Theo grew up playing with – his father Brian Monnin is an entrepreneur who started Play Impossible, onetime makers of a connected, inflatable ball designed to keep kids active.

“Me and my little brother definitely did some product development hours on that,” Theo said of the smart ball.

Like a lot of kids, remote school has been tough for Theo. He misses the hands-on project building in classes such as Flight by Design and labs at school that offer 3D printing and more. But at the beginning of quarantine last spring, he got into photography and drone flying and it’s created some interesting opportunities in the months since.

Mount Rainier is visible in a drone image shot above a farmland conservation project on the Buckley Plateau. (Theo Monnin Photo)

“I just started using my drone, learning about it and thinking about ways I could use it for good,” Theo said of the DJI Mavick 2 Pro that he flies.

With his school’s internship programs canceled by COVID-19 this year, Theo was undeterred in learning about and reaching out to Lighthawk, an organization which peers volunteer airplane pilots with local politicians and conservationists to provide a birds-eye view of endangered coastal and protected forest lands throughout the US and Canada.

Lighthawk didn’t yet have a volunteer drone pilot program, but loved the idea and introduced Theo to the Washington Farmland Trust, which protects and stewards threatened farmland and was looking for new ways to study and promote the protection of these endangered lands with aerial footage.

“I don’t know how to fly a plane nor do I own a plane, but I can fly a drone,” Theo said. “I wanted to see if I could provide a similar sort of service on a smaller scale.”

Theo Monnin hopes to encourage other drone pilots to use their devices to capture footage of endangered lands.

Gina Kilbridge, senior development manager at Washington Farmland Trust, said Theo organized, shot and edited a series of aerial videos of one of the trust’s high priority farm conservation projects on the Buckley Plateau near Mount Rainier.

“I was deeply struck by Theo’s initiative,” Kilbridge said. “As a non-profit, we are conscientious of expanding resources and video production is often cost prohibitive. And yet, there is no better medium to demonstrate the urgency to protect our region’s rapidly disappearing farmland. ”

Kilbridge said Theo was extremely motivated, capturing and editing exceptional footage into a multimedia presentation that he plans to share with his fellow students in the drone club, in hopes of exciting additional volunteers to join the effort. And the communication tool that he assembled will prove invaluable to Washington Farmland Trust as it virtually engages with its community of supporters.

Theo, who is currently applying to colleges where he plans to pursue a degree in engineering, is now building on his experiences to launch BirdsEye, a volunteer organization that recruits drone pilots and peers them with conservation organizations. He hopes his “aerial activism” is something that catches on.

“I think this is like the most impactful thing I’ve been able to do,” Theo said. “Just finding ways to combine my passion for aviation and photography with conservation has been cool. It’s fun to go to these farms, catch some visuals while also knowing that I’m doing something positive. ”

Nominate a Junior Geek

GeekWire will feature a new Junior Geek of the Month in profiles meant to capture how they are looking to make a positive impact on the world through their geeky pursuits. In addition, they’ll receive special recognition from our project partner, Northern Trust.

Do you know an exceptional Junior Geek between the ages of 12 to 20 who is going to change the world? Submit a nomination.

Nominees must be residents of the Pacific Northwest, and parental information must be included for those nominees under the age of 18. Jr. Geeks may nominate themselves but please be sure to include your parent or guardian’s contact information.

Read about our previous Junior Geek of the Month winners.