DEPUE — It’s the second year in a row that DePue’s Student Environmental Group has received national recognition in the Siemens’ “We Can Change the World Challenge.”
This year, the group created the “Thermonators” team and worked on a prototype that used spent plastics as a fuel source. Team Thermonators included juniors Cassiday Mitchell and Jacob Aden and senior James Yundt. The team’s mentor was Keith Garcia, high school science teacher at DePue.
The idea for the project came shortly after classroom discussion about the unsettling amount of plastic bottles filling the landfills. The team developed a way to find the right amount of accelerant, mixed with the correct amount of plastic to create a heat source.
The project started small in a saucepan with one plastic bottle and a small flame and grew into a large steel pot, complete with a filtering chimney that held heat temperatures more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The students assured all project experiments were completed with a local firefighter on scene as a precaution, and there was only one major unexpected turn in the project, when their fire grew hot enough to melt their aluminum turkey roaster prototype.
While the project didn’t place in the challenge, it brought little discouragement to students, and perhaps urged them to think harder about their idea. They are currently looking into submitting the project in the Google Science Fair.
The opportunity to build an idea that started on paper and eventually turn into a prototype that has the potential to “save the world” one day, was in itself a winning experience.
“With anything we do here, it’s always a learning experience. There’s always opportunities to do something new and perhaps change the world,” Aden said.
One thing that Yundt enjoyed about the project was its ability to incorporate it in everyday classroom studies.
“It’s also a competitive challenge. You want to do good and show pride in not only your school, but the state,” he said.
As a first year member of the student environmental group, Mitchell found the challenge an eye-opener.
“It really opened me up to science and more than just classroom science. The project itself was very interesting to learn about and also the facts about plastic and harmful things because I didn’t know that before,” she said.
With the second year of the Siemens’ challenge completed, Garcia is already looking toward the next. He’s talking with freshmen and eighth-grade students to try to rev up the interest in joining next year’s group. While he admits working on the project all year long can be a huge undertaking for students, it’s a great opportunity to learn real life skills and management tied into one.
“It’s not for everybody. (The students) have to be self-starters, and I tell them coming in, ‘You have to be able to work sometimes with little or no direction,’” he said. “Obviously they are top science students and are motivated and have an interest beyond the classroom. They’re working together as a team, and it’s things they will have to do in the real world — meeting deadlines, working with different objectives and goals. That’s just an extremely valuable experience for them.”
Anna McKee, the schools’ community coordinator, was a big contributor to the student group. When they needed equipment or materials for the project, she was always willing to go searching for whatever the needs were at local shopping centers. She explained how the challenge was a great learning opportunity for the students.
“This type of project incorporates a lot of different areas. They’re getting math, the science, the writing and the reading all in one particular setting,” she said. “Sometimes that’s all it takes to catch the bug to make things not so boring.”
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