At WHMS, final challenge underway for STEM team

By Jen Cowart
Posted 2/22/17

There are plants growing, water flowing, fish swimming and charts and graphs galore in John Worthington’s science room at Western Hills Middle School as the six STEM club students who recently won …

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At WHMS, final challenge underway for STEM team


There are plants growing, water flowing, fish swimming and charts and graphs galore in John Worthington’s science room at Western Hills Middle School as the six STEM club students who recently won the Lexus Eco Challenge competition, prepare for the contest’s Final Challenge phase. The team calls themselves “The Greenhouse Effect” and consists of Elizabeth Cowart, Julia Deal, Eric Garcia, Ava Kavanagh, Leah Phann and Jordan Simpson, working under the supervision of STEM Club faculty advisors Michael Blackburn and John Worthington. Together the students have spent the past month working diligently on their latest project for the Lexus Eco Challenge. As one of only four winning middle school teams across the country, the group received checks for almost $1,200 each and was invited to participate in the challenge’s next and final level competition, whose deadline is March 6.

“Once February vacation is over, we have just about one week left to finish and submit our final project,” Cowart said.

That’s not much time, given the fact that the final challenge asks the students to do something huge: help change the world.

According to the contest rules, the final phase of the competition asks the students to “select an environmental topic and create an Influential Action Plan which shows potential environmental reach beyond the local community and into the wider world. The students must project potential results and quantify those results, implement the Action Plan and document their efforts, educate other students, teachers, community members and others about the environmental topic, inspire action, and generate excitement and buzz about the ideas by communicating with as many people as possible in schools, communities, local government organizations, news publications and online media.”

After putting their heads together for some initial brainstorming, the students and their advisors decided on a course of action and got right to work.

“We could take a completely new idea or expand on our old one,” said Phann.

The students’ previous winning idea included planting gardens in dome-shaped greenhouses which would help to absorb carbon dioxide and create better air quality. This newest project idea involves more planting, but the group has been quite purposeful in exactly which plants they are planting, and for a very good reason.

“We have planted watercress and other plants which will take carbon dioxide out of water by acting as a filter,” said Garcia.

According to Blackburn, the students’ choice of plant is what takes their project to a higher level.

“They knew that watercress is edible,” he said. “Therefore it’s a food source, they’re growing something that filters the air, cleans the water, and it’s edible.”

“It’s really a multi-purpose plan,” said Kavanagh.

In order to simulate a real-life scenario of a river, the students planted their plants in a plastic gutter, which acts as the side of a riverbank or lake. A pool noodle will be placed in the tank to make the gutter float, which will simulate the riverbank or lake.

“This solves the problem of poor air quality in a whole new way,” said Kavanagh.

To test out their hypothesis, the students have been keeping fish in water as well, testing viability, and they have been keeping charts and graphs of the changes taking place over time such as the number of fish and plants which are growing and surviving, as well as the pH levels and the temperature of the water, all of which is updated daily by the students.

“We check on them once or twice a day, every school day,” Phann said.

“If it hadn’t been wintertime, we could’ve taken this project outside to a location such as nearby Meshanticut Lake, and tested it there,” said Blackburn. “Instead, they’re simulating that type of location indoors, inside the school.”

Along with the scientific experimentation, the students are working hard on their presentation. A PowerPoint consisting of no more than 15 slides is required, along with a detailed Action Plan, which includes an objective with specific measurable goals, implementation steps, and a plan for communication out to a wider audience, and a final summary detailing the success of their project.

The students have also been photographing their project along the way in order to document the progress being made.

Additionally, they have worked hard on spreading the message about their project through several online platforms including Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Blogspot, Facebook and Twitter.

“We are supposed to be tracking communication, followers and viewership,” said Simpson.

The Greenhouse Effect’s overall message is about taking “Going Green” to the highest level, according to the students, and they hope that their project will not only help to clean the world, but will help to feed the world as well.

“We only have one planet, and we need to make it as clean as possible,” Deal said. Her sentiments were what led to the group’s motto, “One Planet, One Life,” and their very own hashtag, #OnePlanetOneLife.

For more information about The Greenhouse Effect’s project, visit their blog at, or visit them on social media: on Twitter: @LexusEco, on Instagram: @The_Greenhouseeffect, on Snapchat: Greenhouse_whms, on Facebook: and on their YouTube channel:


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