Ruby Parker, from Bellingham High School, describes her team’s Imagine Tomorrow project to a judge. Bob Hubner photo/WSU
Ruby Parker, from Bellingham High School, describes her team’s Imagine Tomorrow project to a judge. Bob Hubner photo/WSU

“We took a jet engine from a KC 135 military plane and converted it to run on biodiesel. We will start it up outside if you want to see it operate”, said Colton Beierman, a student from Ephrata High School, to visitors at his booth.

He was one of 542 students (a nearly equal number of females and males) who came to Washington State University (WSU) to participate in the Imagine Tomorrow competition held May 30th, 2014.

This competition started at WSU in 2008 and offered Washington high school students an opportunity to present creative energy solutions to business and industry leaders. In 2012, NARA provided resources to expand the opportunity to high school students in Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In addition, a new “biofuels challenge” category was added to the existing challenge categories of behavior, design and technology.

The Imagine Tomorrow competition has since grown from 86 teams in 2008 to 140 teams at the most recent 2014 event. For NARA, sponsoring Imagine Tomorrow fits well with the goal of increasing bioenergy literacy and creating a future workforce for an emerging wood residual to biofuel and co-products industry.

Diverse projects in the Biofuels Challenge

In 2014, 22 teams competed in the biofuels challenge and the presentations were impressive for their originality, level of inquiry and diversity.

Stem High School in Redmond WA placed first in the biofuels challenge. Their project explored how genetic modifications in yeast could affect ethanol production when supplied varied feedstocks. A first place award earned each student $1,000 and the school $5,000. In addition, this team earned an all expense paid trip to present their project at the Biomass 2014 conference held in Washington D.C which was sponsored by the US Department of Energy.

Stem High School, Redmond Washington: First place team in 2014 Imagine Tomorrow biofuels category. From left to right: Oisin Doherty, Pavan Kumar, Mike Town (Coach), Andrew Wang, Ethan Perrin, Isaak Nanneman. Bob Hubner photo/WSU
Stem High School, Redmond Washington: First place team in 2014 Imagine Tomorrow biofuels category. From left to right: Oisin Doherty, Pavan Kumar, Mike Town (Coach), Andrew Wang, Ethan Perrin, Isaak Nanneman. Bob Hubner photo/WSU

Second place was awarded to students from Thomas Jefferson High School in Lakeland North, WA. They collected microbes from multiple water sources in the Puget Sound area and tested them for methane production to be used in anaerobic digesters.

Bellevue High School took third place with a project that compared various strands of algae for lipid production. They then developed extraction and processing methods for retrieving the lipids.

Eastlake High School in Sammamish placed a gene into yeast, which allowed the yeast to produce ethanol from wastewater. Their project won fourth place.

Cash awards were also given to second, third and forth place finishers. By the enthusiasm expressed by the students and the 124 judges who invested their Saturday reviewing projects and talking with students, it seemed as though all were glad to be there.

Tracking STEM career choices and bioenergy literacy

NARA is developing assessments to measure the level of impact the Imagine Tomorrow competition has on participating students. One area being assessed is whether students select STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields for college study. This is the second year that students received surveys that inquire about their future career decisions. The initial results from the 2013 competition survey suggest that the competition has a very positive effect on the students’ interest in STEM careers. Beginning this year, the survey will provide data regarding student education choices made after high school.

To measure the level of bioenergy literacy gained from this event, a scoring rubric was developed that measures the literacy reflected in the presentation materials (abstracts and posters). This novel approach to measure energy literacy was recently published in the ASCE Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice assesses the Imagine Tomorrow abstracts from 2009 to 2013 and posters in 2013.

Together these assessments should provide an impact measurement attributed to this competition. When Mike Town, the coach from Stem High School, which produced the winning biofuels category team, was asked about the impact this event had on his students and school, he replied,

“The impact is pretty impressive. Each of the groups who attended learned to work in a team, compile research, delineate responsibilities, and make presentations. The teams that placed well received prize money and the opportunity to document the experience on their college application. Several of our students are now interested in biofuel research as a potential career.

However, perhaps the greatest value is how the Imagine Tomorrow experience impacts our school culture. We ran our own contest to select the 8 teams out of 14 teams (70 students total) that wanted to compete at the contest. Imagine Tomorrow provides an environment in which our students want to compete, and they strive to do the best job possible because our teams do well.”

NARA provides resources and coaching

In an effort to increase the level of team participation, especially in the recently included states ID, OR and MT, and to enhance the presentation quality and experience, the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS), a NARA affiliate, provides educational programs and financial support to Imagine Tomorrow high school teams. This year, MOSS delivered a summer workshop and a biofuel webinar series, featuring NARA researchers, to high school teachers/Imagine Tomorrow coaches. In addition, graduate students affiliated with MOSS, provided guidance to teams throughout their project development.

To view the MOSS webinars offered to teachers view here.

At the Imagine Tomorrow competition, eleven teachers, all of whom had teams entered, met with MOSS staff members to evaluate MOSS’ contribution. Providing funds for equipment, assistance with lodging and paperwork, and a forum for students to rehearse their presentations were examples given on how MOSS made a positive difference in addition to the training. Teachers suggested that MOSS adjust the webinar times, include previous Imagine Tomorrow projects on the MOSS website, and provide a list of researchers who would be willing to talk directly with teachers and students. Apparently, those students who contacted scientists directly completed stronger projects.

In review, the Imagine Tomorrow competition was a great success. Of course, the students were excited about winning cash prizes, however, when students were asked what was the best part of their Imagine Tomorrow experience, they frequently brought up the interaction with judges. One teacher pointed out that her students were highly impacted when a judge provided them her business card. The ability for students to share their project with the “real world” seems to be a real motivator.

To see a video about Imagine Tomorrow, view here.