A team of students from the STEAM Innovation Academy at Greater Lawrence Technical School were chosen as winners for the 2019-2020 National Lexus Eco Challenge in the Air and Climate category for its “Carbon Free Lawrence” project.
The Lexus Eco Challenge is a STEM-based program designed by Lexus and Scholastic to educate and empower students from grades 6-12 to take action to improve the environment.
The “Carbon Free Lawrence” team spent months growing large cultures of algae in the student-designed and -constructed photobioreactor. Experimenting with oil extraction procedures, the GLTS student team developed a new procedure for extracting oil from algae. The students were motivated to find an innovative way to reduce their carbon footprint through the development of clean energy. This work was made possible by funding provided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center through its Learn and Earn Program. The program helps prepare Massachusetts high school students for clean energy careers and clean energy/STEM majors in higher education.
“In order for Massachusetts to meet its ambitious climate goals, it will need to develop groundbreaking innovations in technology as well as the next generation of clean energy entrepreneurs, researchers, and workers,” said MassCEC Director of Workforce Development Tamika Jacques. “These students represent a tremendous step in both directions for the Commonwealth. We applaud these pioneers from Greater Lawrence Technical School, and are eager to follow their progress and future achievements.”
The team included Grade 11 STEAM students from the Engineering and Biotechnology programs: Robert Suriel of Lawrence, Andy Morales of Lawrence, Alexis Gonzalez of Lawrence, Yasmerlin Ortega of Lawrence, Isabel Chae of Andover, Benedict Nouel of Lawrence and Emily Then of Lawrence. The group worked with STEAM Innovation Academy Life Sciences teacher Marla Hilderbrand-Chae, Math teacher Patricia Giampa, and English Language Arts teacher Caroline McCullough.
Carbon Free Lawrence was one of the 8 high school winning teams chosen nationwide and will receive $10,000 in grants and scholarships.
As students worked on designing and prototyping their own photobioreactor, they simultaneously cultured and scaled up large volumes of algae in the lab. After building the outdoor photobioreactor in a GLTS courtyard, students then experimented with ways to prepare the algae for oil extraction, finally using ultrasonication. After the preparation, attempts to extract the oil using a more environmentally-friendly solvent were ultimately successful in resulting in a small amount of oil. While more work needs to be done in refining the oil for use, the hope is to have some crude oil to mix with biodiesel in order to power the equipment in Horticulture.
“What I found exciting was figuring out how the structure of the bioreactor should be built and what structures would work best for the flow of the algae,” Gonzalez said. “I found it interesting because in school my main focus in shop is mechanical engineering, so to be able to think about ideas that had to include biotech was interesting.”
This project spanned many months – from March until December 2019 – and continues today. These students are currently competing for $30,000 in a final round of the Lexus Eco Challenge by preparing the oil for use in biodiesel.
“I was so excited we’ve won off something we’re so passionate about, the fact we the beginning of change gives me more motivation for the second half,” Morales said. “The project has helped me grow as a person, a person that wants change and wants to be the leader.”
Students were motivated to spread awareness of their work. They demonstrated their learning to their school and community at STEAM Exhibitions. They also had the opportunity to share their findings through conferences such as Learn Launch and the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. In addition, students showcased their projects at the Massachusetts Statehouse.
“The work students did on this project was outstanding and I couldn’t be prouder of them,” Superintendent Lavoie said. “Their commitment to finishing and perfecting this project over the last few months is indicative of the spirit, ingenuity and skills of the students here at GLTS.”