SHS students place in state, national renewable energy contests

Published 3:36 pm Friday, June 3, 2022

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Heather Greer, not Adam Shipman, is Smithfield High’s Engineering III teacher. Shipman teaches Manufacturing I and II.

Building a functional wind turbine from scratch takes time, as Jaylen Marble will attest.

The Smithfield High School junior has spent multiple 12-hour days on the school’s campus this semester, spending much of the extra time doing exactly that. And he wasn’t alone.

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He and five classmates, all juniors in Heather Greer’s Engineering III course, entered the Eastern Regional KidWind Challenge as “Team AirBenders” for the semester-long “capstone” project Virginia’s Department of Education requires of all Engineering III and IV students. SHS engineering students are given a choice of entering the KidWind turbine competition, KidWind’s solar challenge or building a submersible robot, land-rover robot or drone for the Eastern Virginia Sea, Air and Land challenge.

“There was nights where we stayed till, like, 10:30,” Marble said.

KidWind takes a hands-on approach to teaching students about renewable energy by supplying teachers with do-it-yourself solar and wind generator kits. According to the organization’s website, KidWind challenge events have been implemented in 30 states since 2009, with roughly 40,000 students competing in 300 events across the country.

Team AirBenders, which opted to power their turbine with a homemade alternator rather than use the provided generator, ended up placing third in the regional challenge held at Old Dominion University, and second in the statewide contest, advancing them to the national KidWind competition in San Antonio, Texas, last month.

“Part of the contest is a knowledge section about alternative energy, not only wind, solar but also hydroelectric and even geothermal,” said Manufacturing Systems I and II teacher Adam Shipman, who served with Greer as the team’s two coaches.

“Alternative energy is one of the fastest-growing sectors of industry in the Tidewater area,” Greer added. “Siemens Gamesa is planning to build a turbine blade manufacturing plant to support Dominion Energy’s offshore wind farm. Solar farms are also growing in our area.”

At the San Antonio event, Team AirBenders competed against 25 other high school teams from across the country, taking home the High School Innovation Award for going above and beyond the parameters of the challenge by essentially building their own generators. Marble cites the thrill of testing their abilities for going the extra mile.

“Anything building, creating, designing, it’s all fun to us,” Marble said.

It almost didn’t work.

The school’s plasma cutter had broken just when the team needed to create 6-inch-diameter disks for the rotor in the alternator. Fortunately, Greer’s husband knew of a fabrication shop nearby with the needed equipment.

“Other than that, everything is built by hand,” Marble said.

Smithfield High has competed in KidWind competitions since 2018, with at least one team receiving an invitation to compete at the national level every year except 2020. AES, the international energy company developing the 1,750-acre Cavalier solar farm across Isle of Wight and Surry counties, sent representatives to Smithfield High on June 2 to recognize Team AirBenders and another SHS team – consisting of seniors Aiden Henry and Wyatt Langston – that finished third at the state level in KidWind’s solar competition.

“It’s all about workforce development, it’s all about making sure that young people see clean energy as a career option,” said Helen Humphries, stakeholder relations manager for AES.

Henry and Langston had created a prototype solar-powered mini-fridge using Styrofoam coolers purchased from Dollar General and what Henry terms a “reverse convection oven” cooling system.

For the regional contest, they’d chosen the name “Cool Possums” for their team, a nod to their many nights scavenging, sometimes through trash, for spare parts. Their invitation to compete at the state level proved to be something of a mixed blessing, as sloppy handwriting on the entry form resulted in the team being renamed.

“Due to a grammatical error, we’re now the ‘Tool Possums,’” Henry said.

AES, which has sponsored the KidWind challenges for the past three years and whose personnel served as judges in the competitions, also presented a $1,000 contribution to Smithfield High’s engineering club.

“Their commitment will continue to support future projects and competitions,” said Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton.