STEM club takes part in the Lexus Eco Challenge

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While many across the country are debating environmental issues, and the middle school students in the Western Hills Middle School STEM Club are working together to come up with the solutions. The club, who has won the Verizon App Challenge's 'Best in State' title year after year, has taken on a new challenge this month, the Lexus Eco Challenge.

The Lexus Eco Challenge is open to students in grades 6-12 and requires the students to choose an environmental topic that affects their community and to work together to come up with an action plan, implement it, and report out on the results. This was a new challenge for the group, and it had a quick turnaround time following the submissions of the Verizon App Challenge, which was due just a few weeks ago, with a due date of December 12 at 11:59 p.m. 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.

"This is the final week of the Lexus Eco Challenge," said Michael Blackburn, one of two faculty advisors for the club early last week. "This is a new challenge for us. It's new to you, it's new for myself and for Mr. Worthington." Blackburn is an eighth-grade math teacher at WHMS while John Worthington is a seventh-grade science teacher. The club consists of students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

"So far, in the past week's time we have formed groups, figured out what problems each group was trying to solve in regards to the environment, and the groups have started to come up with plans for how to solve these problems. Some groups have even started to implement their solutions," Blackburn said. "About half of you are already there. Last week you were awesome. You were super-focused and on task. We have four more STEM sessions this week so we need to stay focused and continue to work hard."

Blackburn told the students that he was impressed with what he had seen thus far, given that this was such a new challenge for the STEM club.

“I'm seeing some really good ideas, good solutions, and the solutions I'm seeing from your groups would really make a difference if they could be implemented.”

With Blackburn and Worthington overseeing, the club members used their work sessions each day last week to break up into small groups. Each group member had specific roles and responsibilities such as group leader, script writer, graphic designer, photographer, editor, researcher, and sometimes members would be called "Black Jack," a jack-of-all job that allowed them to work in whatever capacity was needed, whether it be typing the required power point slides to document their work or to help another member with their task.

The environmental problems and solutions being talked through and worked through varied greatly and addressed the big issues in the Air and Climate category.

"Our problem is that there is too much Carbon Dioxide in the air and we are trying to fix it by trying to plant more trees around Cranston, especially in areas where there is a lot of activity, like traffic from cars, or near hospitals where we want to keep patients healthier," said Andrew Garcia, graphic designer for one group. "I am emailing Mayor [Allan] Fung to ask him if it's okay to plant more trees in some of the areas that get high activity and more Carbon Dioxide."

His co-member, Emily Bardsley worked nearby with Jasmine Youssef on another part of the project.

"I am working on a script with Jasmine for a 30 second video with facts about trees and about Cranston to find the best places to put the trees," Bardsley said.

Jordan Ferraro's group worked on their Power Point slides, discussing the issue of harmful pesticides in the environment.

"We want to come up with a plan to reduces harmful chemicals used in the environment," Ferraro said. "We are trying to find a solution that doesn't use as many harmful chemicals and does the same thing."

According to her group's researcher, Alexzandra Tatum, the group had found some solutions that do the same job without releasing any harmful chemicals.

Solving the problem of poor air quality was the goal of another group, one which had also created a prototype of their solution, a miniature dome-shaped "greenhouse garden" made out of an upside-down glass bowl which covered actual soil and seeds. The group had been watching, monitoring and documenting the greenhouse daily throughout the duration of the challenge.

"We are trying to eliminate bad air, filtering the Carbon Dioxide in so the plants will soak it up, and once the plants get all their nutrients, they will expel the oxygen which we will filter back out into the air to make the air clean," said Eric Garcia, whose title was officially that of Engineer, but who the group affectionately called, "The Man with the Plan," given his affinity for coming up with a good plan for the group's project.

"This could also be used as a farm because we are growing snap peas and grass in our prototype," said Garcia. "We chose to use a dome-shaped greenhouse because it allows sunlight to shine in from all sides. We have been spraying the seeds regularly with water."

The group also plans to create a Public Service Announcement in addition to their required Power Point slides which would describe the problem and their solution for solving it.

"We would talk about air pollution and implementing the dome-shaped greenhouses and how these ideas would help to solve this problem," said Garcia.

Coming at air pollution from a completely different angle was the solution that Dillon Bombardier and Chris Kendra's group came up with.

"We are trying to make underwater turbines to alleviate natural gas factories and plants, which would reduce air pollution," said Bombardier. "We are looking at where Rhode Island gets most of their power, and it's from natural gas plants. We are trying to get our state government to get more underwater turbines. We did our research and one underwater turbine can create enough power for 332 households for a year."

As the Lexus Eco Challenge came to a close earlier this week, the faculty advisors aren't sure what level of success any of their groups will see in the competition, but no matter what, they are pleased with the energy and enthusiasm the students put into their projects as well as the way the groups worked together, and because of that, both Worthington and Blackburn say they look forward to giving the students in the club some new and different experiences in the coming months.

"It's neat to see them self-generating ideas, really good, practical stuff," said Worthington. "They're fully engaged in the process and it's a completely different setting than in the daily classroom setting. We have some great ideas for future projects that we're tossing around too, because they're so engaged in what we do here."

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