Published: July 4, 2013
If all goes well, one year from now Sand Creek High School students will be at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presenting their innovative water filtration system, hobnobbing with the intellectual elite and eating a memorable lobster dinner.
If all goes really well, they'll change the world.
Their chances of accomplishing both are good, says teacher Todd Matia.
"This is probably the smartest group I've worked with, in my 13 years of teaching," he said. "These are the kids who get upset with 32s and 33s on their ACTs. They wanted 35s and 36s. They're smart and they're passionate about helping people."
Sand Creek High, east of Colorado Springs in Falcon School District 49, is nearly empty for the summer, with the exception of 27 juniors and seniors who show up every Thursday.
Matia and students in his Engineering Design and Development class are spending a chunk of their break working toward their goal of winning a $10,000 innovation grant from MIT.
They're one of 30 Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams competing out of an initial applicant pool of several hundred teams; 15 will receive grants to "invent technological solutions to real-world problems."
After brainstorming and doing research, in September they'll submit their idea - to create a better, faster bio-sand filter to produce clean water for Third World countries. If the proposal gets accepted, they'll be awarded the grant in October and proceed with building their filtration system.
They'll then show off their prototype next summer at MIT's EurekaFest, the culmination of the project, which also includes a seafood feast for winners.
After discussing various project possibilities, the students settled on improving water filtration methods, with an eye toward making their work extend beyond a typical school science and engineering project.
"We decided water is so far-reaching in its potential to help people," said senior Evan Dutch.
Water-borne diseases, such as cholera, are one reason 29,000 children under age 5 die every day, worldwide, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, which works for children's survival, development and rights.
Students are studying existing bio-sand water filters, which use layers of sand of varying coarseness to filter contaminants that make humans sick.
"When the bio-layer works correctly, you can get 90 percent clean water and then treat it with chlorine tablets," Matia explains. "The problem is it takes two hours to get four gallons out of bio-sand filter production. Our goal is to increase production and not just improve what's out there, but create something totally new and better."
Perhaps bamboo would work as the primary material for their system, some students proposed during a recent meeting. It's readily available in countries like Haiti, which has problems with pathogenic bacteria, protozoa and viruses in its water supply, said Brody Strunk, a junior. Students also discussed having to treat the bamboo to prevent mold.
The project is helping students test their engineering and science skills, Strunk said. "It's a cool way to apply the knowledge," he said.
Abby Timmermeyer, another student on the team, said when she first heard about the bio-sand filter concept, she was excited.
"I always hate drinking Kansas water. I think, 'Who wants diarrhea?' You can die from that in Third World countries. I'm hoping we can get out there and give it (the filter the team will make) to people to use," she said.
Students are contacting businesses and organizations to potentially help them with data analysis, water quality testing and clean water education.
Matia is convinced the team has "a real solid shot" at earning a grant. It would be the first team from Colorado to do so.
"This project is going to be pretty beefy," Matia told his students. "It's going to involve free periods and time after school, and not just Saturdays, to commit to doing something worthwhile and representing Colorado and Sand Creek well."