By Andy Miller
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.
Miriam’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.