Students propose energy solutions, compete for $100k
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
PULLMAN, Wash. - Nearly 450 students from across the Pacific Northwest took up the challenge May 18-20 to imagine a more sustainable, fuel-efficient tomorrow. Their ideas ranged from using neodymium magnets to enhance nuclear fusion reactors to using compostable diapers made from common kitchen supplies.
Washington State University’s fifth annual Imagine Tomorrow problem-solving competition attracted 112 student groups from 46 high schools in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana to present their ideas for transitioning to alternative energy sources. The students competed for more than $100,000 in prize money in four categories: behavior, biofuels, design and technology.
Raising the bar
"Every year I think it can’t get any better — and it does,” said Craig Parks, WSU psychology professor and member of Imagine Tomorrow steering committee. "The bar just keeps going up.”
Once again, imagination, innovation, creativity and enthusiasm were abundant in projects that ran the gamut from top-drawer, sophisticated research to ideas that were ingenuously simple, said Parks. The CUB Senior Ballroom on the WSU Pullman campus was buzzing with energy and excitement as students explained their ideas to more than 120 judges from a variety of industries and universities. The top sponsors, which also sent judges, included Boeing, Bank of America, Weyerhaeuser and the Northwest Alliance for Renewable Resources (NARA).
Scientists connect with students
"It’s exciting and energizing to be part of this and to talk with students about their projects,” said John Palmer, a technical fellow with Boeing. Palmer said he appreciated having such a large judging corps, and a streamlined judging system, so that the judges — nearly all of whom are working scientists — could spend more time talking with students.
WSU Regents Professor Mike Wolcott, a co-project director for NARA, said he was pleased that the competition attracted students with diverse career goals, not just those focused on careers in science and technology. "We need everyone to understand science and technology,” Wolcott said. Scientific and technological literacy is critical to understanding not only the challenges facing society, he said, but also the intense public policy debates over how to meet those challenges.
Scientific literacy was on the minds of Olivia Michaelson and Cortney Roberts of the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma. They created an energy conservation curriculum and plan to present it to third- through fifth-grade students at four elementary schools in their community.
"Planning took a lot more time than we anticipated,” Michaelson said, smiling behind a table stacked with curriculum ideas and information.
Pumped to return next year
Their teacher, Bethany Schmidt, said she believes the project, and the competition, have already made a difference. None of the seven students she brought to the competition had ever been on a college campus, she said. "So far, this has just been such an eye-opening experience for them.”
After set-up on Friday night her students were a little intimidated by some of the other projects, she said, but after judging started on Saturday they got their confidence back.
"They are so pumped to come back next year,” Schmidt said.
Things you never thought about
Katie Moxley, a geologist with Boeing has been a judge every year since the competition began in 2008. Every year, she said, she is surprised by the students’ creativity. "There were things that I would never have even thought about,” she said.
"It’s my favorite weekend of the year,” she said. "I love it; I love it; I love it.”
One of Moxley’s favorite projects — in an area she was not judging — was a project that integrated hydroponic agriculture with fish farming. The students from Camas High School grew kale, swiss chard and Moroccan mint in one tub and tilapia in an adjacent tub by pumping nutrient-rich water from the tilapia into the tub with the plants, and taking filtered water from the plants and pumping it back to the tilapia.
"They really benefit each other very nicely,” said Hope Richter, a student at Camas High.
Not theoretical, but real problems
Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, was the keynote speaker at the evening awards ceremony. "These things they are working on are not just theoretical,” he said Saturday afternoon, "these are real problems that others are working on as well.”
Bernard said he enjoyed seeing the diversity of ideas and also the different stages of thinking. In the area of biofuels, which was a new category this year, some students created projects that demonstrated their understanding of the benefits and challenges of biofuels, while other groups created biofuels using various ingredients from algae to coffee grounds.
In fact, a team from Moscow High School in Idaho, took second place in the biofuels category for a project using coffee grounds to make biofuel.
Turbines and batteries
Other local teams in this year’s competition included four teams from Pullman Christian School. Their projects included a proposal to create a man-made mountain for water turbines and wind collection and an idea for creating a battery that can be charged by renewable energy. One project designed to encourage more urban and suburban gardens earned the Community Impact Award.
Surrounding states participate
This was the first year that students from surrounding states were invited to the competition, an expansion made possible by funding from NARA, a WSU led alliance of universities, industry and government labs dedicated to help create a woody biomass to biojet fuel and bioproducts industry in the Pacific Northwest.
Students from Sentinel High School in Missoula earned the top award in the behavior category for their proposal to change the world by way of the school lunch program. Their goal was to infuse the cafeteria menu with organic fruits and vegetables; their challenge was ensuring food safety and making it affordable. Their answer? Hydroponic greenhouses at the school using equipment that had been seized in drug raids.
Under their proposal, equipment that once grew cannabis would now be used to supply students with heirloom tomatoes and kale.
Sentinel student Matthew Powell said when the state legislature tightened regulations on Montana’s medical marijuana industry in 2011, law enforcement agencies began raiding illegal operations and seized a vast supply of trays, tubing, lights and other equipment. It’s all in storage right now, Powell said, but everyone his group has talked with likes the idea of putting it back to work—growing vegetables.
For information about the Imagine Tomorrow competition, please email email@example.com.