Western Hills Students one of 8schools in country to win Lexus Eco-Challenge


A team of students from Western Hills Middle School is one of just eight middle school teams across the country to win the Lexus Eco-Challenge. On Friday, January 13, WHMS STEM faculty advisor Michael Blackburn received the news that the team calling themselves "The Greenhouse Effect" had won a challenge with their submission. The team, which consists of six students in the seventh and eighth grades, Eric Garcia, Julia Deal, Jordan Simpson, Leah Phann, Elizabeth Cowart and Ava Kavanagh.

"I had another team of kids here after school because they'd won the Verizon App Challenge Best in State title, and they had work to do for that.” said Blackburn. “When the email came in, I told them to start contacting the Lexus Eco-Challenge kids to let them know, to start spreading the word as fast as we could."

The students were both shocked and excited, since the prize for this level of the competition was $10,000, which would be split between the students, the school and the faculty advisors.

"I dropped my phone when I found out," Garcia said.

"The school gets $2,000, advisors get $1,000 to share, and the kids get to split the remaining $7,000 equally between them," Blackburn said. "At the beginning of the challenge, when we read that, I told the kids that Mr. [John] Worthington and I would be re-investing our money right back into the STEM program if we happened to win."

The students did not have a long time to complete their challenge, just two school weeks and the nights and weekends that went along with them, because the STEM club had just wrapped up participation in the Verizon App Challenge, which took two months of their time. One of the weeks, the group stayed after school every single day, five days in a row.

"They worked under the gun for this one," Blackburn said. "They had very little time and they achieved a lot in that time. They utilized all the extra time outside of school that they had, and that's testament to them and how much they really stepped up for this challenge."

The students had to work within an over-arching category of Air and Climate, but the groups could choose specific issues from the following sub-topics: Global Warming, Climate, Air Pollution, Ozone Depletion, Greenhouse Gases, Fossil Fuels and Renewable Energy.

With no time to spare, the students decided on their project idea, did their research, and began to implement it, creating a prototype of a dome-shaped greenhouse, complete with plantings beneath the glass.

"Since my dad works at the library, he got us a room to use after school on the first Friday and we met there and did our planting that day," Garcia said. "Liz took it home with her and took care of it from there."

"I kept it in my room and slept with the lights on, with a lamp over it, misting with water every so often, and watching it grow," said Cowart.

"Liz came in just a few days later and said, 'Our plants grew,'" Blackburn said. "This was a genuinely hands-on science project and these students really implemented their idea. They were the only group to really think outside the box."

In addition to their research and their prototype, the students had to complete a Power Point presentation. A public service announcement video was also recommended.

"We weren't required to do it, but we had extra time, so we wanted to do the PSA," said Cowart.

Each student had ownership in the project, and the team felt that they worked very well together, which is what they attribute their success to.

"We all wanted to do some part of each job," said Kavanagh.

"We all came together and worked hard together," said Simpson.

"We all spent two days working together on the slide show," Garcia said.

According to Blackburn, who had the opportunity to see some of the other submissions, his group's work went above and beyond.

"Just their submission entry alone looked amazing," he said. "They even changed the templates on the Power Point so that it was visually very stunning. The judges wanted to see an action plan and they wanted to see implementation, and this team had it all."

All winning teams have the opportunity to participate in the final level of the contest. In the meantime, they dream of the almost $1,200 that they will each receive as their winnings for this level. Talk of imagining what they would do with it if they could just spend it all revolved around thoughts of special purchases, donating and helping others and, of course, putting it away for college.

For more information about the Lexus Eco-Challenge, visit lexus.scholastic.com.


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