Listening In On the Future

By Andy Miller

EPA's Andy Miller with Patrick H. Hurd Award winner Miriam Demasi

EPA’s Andy Miller presents Miriam Demasi with the Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award.

The other day I overheard an amazing conversation between two teenage girls.  “That is so cool!  I have to tell my friend—she’ll freak out!” one of them gushed.  It sounds typical, but what amazed me was what they were talking about—using coal fly ash as a replacement for Portland cement.

Really. This was the kind of discussion one heard among thousands of teenagers at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, where I was lucky enough to be a judge for an EPA-sponsored award.

The conversation I overheard ended when one of the girls had to go back to her project to talk with other judges, but she rushed off saying, “We’ll be back when we’re done.  We really need to talk more.”  About fly ash, Portland cement, shear strength, Young’s modulus (a measure of material stiffness and elasticity), and admixing accelerants. These were the girls’ words, not mine.

One of the girls in this conversation was a high school freshman from West Virginia, Miriam Demasi.  She is this year’s winner of EPA’s Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award, which is given at the ISEF each year.

Miriam’s project was to create, from wastes, a building material that would be more resilient to earthquake damage than adobe.  She used fly ash and newspaper to create bricks that were lighter than adobe, and she showed, among other analyses, how the strength changed with the amount of newspaper.  Every question we posed to her was answered thoroughly and confidently.  It was clear she knew her stuff.

Miriam’s interests are not just in engineering.  A few years ago, she did a study to see if peoples’ ability to read mirror writing – writing as you would see it backwards, as in a mirror—depended upon whether they were predominantly left-brained or right-brained.  And she’s a soccer player.

Of course, Miriam was not the only one who really knew her science.  The bits of conversation I heard when walking along the posters rivaled those at a professional technical conference.  Here’s just a small sampling:

  • “The extraction method did well.”
  • “It doesn’t require much of an operations staff.”
  • “These use scaffolds of synthetic polymers.”
  • “We connect it in a linear fashion.”

It’s hard to remember these were teenagers, still—or even barely—in high school.  Selecting just one out of the more than 250 environmentally-related projects was not easy.  But it was one of those efforts that gives one tremendous hope for the future.

ISEF Award FestivitiesMiriam’s prize includes a trip to Washington, DC next spring to attend EPA’s National Sustainable Design Expo where she’ll display her winning project along with entries to the P3 (People, Prosperity, Planet) Student Design Competition for Sustainability, giving her the  chance to interact with college students with similar interests in sustainability.

I was fortunate enough to be able to congratulate Miriam personally at the awards ceremony.  I hope you all have the opportunity to meet one of the exceptional ISEF finalists and congratulate them on their achievements.  For those of us in EPA, if you happen to run into Miriam when she’s in Washington, congratulate her and, most definitely, be nice to her.  We’ll probably be working for her before too long.

About the Author: When not serving as an eavesdropping science fair judge, Andy Miller is the Associate Director for Climate in EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Scientists in that program conduct research to assess the impacts of a changing climate, and to develop the scientific information and tools the nations needs to act on climate change.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Science Wednesday: Science is Cool

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Imagine powering your computer using an energy cell fueled by cow manure. Or using gold dust as the key ingredient in a glamorous yet inexpensive sunscreen?

These products aren’t so far away, and the minds behind these amazing ideas are students between 14-18 years old. Over 1,500 high school students met in Reno, NV last month to showcase their independent research at the world’s premiere pre-collegiate science competition – the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Forget about the blue ribbon and $20 gift certificate for the homemade volcano. These kids were bringing some serious science: biochemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, environmental management, nuclear and particle physics, cellular and molecular biology, and medicine and health sciences—just to name a few.

Because it looked like such an amazing opportunity for EPA’s Year of Science 2009, activities, I wrote a proposal that would include EPA in the 2009 ISEF as a Special Awards presenter. EPA’s award included an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the P3: People, Planet and Prosperity Student Design Competition for Sustainability and display their project on the national mall.

High school sophomore Ryan Alexander was the winner of EPA’s 2009 Sustainability Award with his outstanding project, Gone with the Windmills: An Analysis of the Effectiveness of an Oscillating Wind Energy Generator. Our judges were blown away with this guy (okay, pun intended). Not only was he brilliant (he is skipping the next 2 years of high school to attend college) but he was a poised, charismatic salesman. Ryan was pitching his project with the prowess of a seasoned CEO. We joked about buying stock in his future company.

The best part of my experience at the competition was interacting with the students. After all, they were just kids, but to hear their casual conversations was inspiring. They joked about algorithms and played anagram games. Here, the quintessential nerd did not exist. There were no classifications, just regular people who felt that science and knowledge was the status quo. It reminded me of something I felt at a much less prestigious science fair I participated in many years ago. You can’t let anyone tell you that science is just for people who wear dorky glasses and study quantum physics all the time. Science allows you to appreciate more about the world. By learning and studying it, you can understand anything from how to program a video game to how wormholes might connect possible alternate universes. It even energizes people about manure. How can you say that is not cool?!

About the author: Patrick Hurd  joined EPA in September, 2008 and is an intern in the S.T.E.P. program. He has a background in marine biology and is currently working with the Science Communications Staff in the Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.