By B.C. Manion
The elementary school children were sitting at a table with a reporter, talking about their idea for powering homes and businesses with energy tapped by a new technology they conceived, called a Solar T.R.E.E. when suddenly a group of adults swooped into the room, armed with video cameras and cameras.
Apparently, something big was happening.
And, indeed it was.
For at that moment, Bridgett Nicholson, of Countryside Montessori Charter School told Catie Tomasello, Achyudhan Kutuva and Eyra Gualtieri that they had won second place in the 19th annual Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision awards program.
The girls were obviously thrilled, smiling broadly and cheering their success.
Nine-year-old Achyudhan had a question, though: “Who won first place?” he wanted to know.
As a result of their winning entry, the children will receive an all-expense paid trip, along with two family members, to Washington, D.C. in June to celebrate their success. The youngsters each get a $5,000 U.S. Savings Bond and will have the chance to meet members of Congress, to sightsee around the nation’s capital and attend a gala awards banquet.
Their teacher-coach, Nicholson, and their parent-mentor Heather Tomasello, also get a free trip to Washington, D.C.
The Countryside Montessori Charter students placed second among kindergarten through third-grade teams in the United States and Canada. The competition is one of the largest kindergarten-12th grade competitions in the world, drawing thousands of team entries.
The contest selects winners based on how students combine imagination with the tools of scientific research to envision future technologies that could exist in 20 years.
The trio of children began meeting weekly in September, to work on their entry.
First they brainstormed ideas.
“Everybody had to like the idea,” Achyudhan said.
Reaching consensus took a few conversations.
“It took us about three meetings,” said 7-year-old Catie, the youngest member of the team. She acknowledged she initially wasn’t keen on the team’s idea of a Solar T.R.E.E. that would convert sunlight and wind energy into electricity. But she came around to the idea, and, of course, now she’s glad she did.
Heather Tomasello said the contest gives children a chance to learn how to work as collaborators. It also encourages them to use their imagination to come up with concepts that could possibly be executed within a two-decade time frame.
The Solar T.R.E.E. the children envision would have leaves made of nanotubes, protein and purple bacteria that harvest the energy.
The prototype they built obviously doesn’t work. It’s just a physical representation of their idea.
But the children contend their concept would address needed improvements. Today’s solar panels are not efficient, do not repair themselves and don’t capture the energy of wind, they noted.
Their project abstract states that generating electricity creates the most pollution out of any industry in the nation through the burning of coal, which creates greenhouse gases, smog and acid rain.
Their Solar T.R.E.E. would create clean and affordable energy, making it possible for people who live in poor countries to have electric power without a power grid.
Before advancing to the national competition, the Countryside team won the Southeast Regional competition, with each team member receiving a flip camcorder from Toshiba and the school receiving a laptop computer.
The competition gives children a chance to develop the kinds of critical thinking skills that are needed in the 21st century, said Dennise Ondina, the school principal. Those skills include collaboration, creativity and curiosity, she said.
The competition also taps into a resource that schools sometimes overlook, Ondina said, noting that parents can provide a rich bank of talent to help schools.
For the Tomasellos, winning second place in the competition feels a bit like déjà vu.
Heather Tomasello was the parent-mentor of Catie’s team in 2009 when the team took second place in the competition for their called “The EpiWatch.” The wristwatch they envisioned would deliver life-saving Epinephrine for people suffering from severe allergies.
The watch would alert medical help and held a GPS so responders could locate the person in distress.
All four of the children on that team were being home-schooled at the time.
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