By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL - Five Randolph-Macon Academy juniors are thinking big.
For months the students, who call themselves "The Greeners," have been working on an electric project that has gotten them into the finals of the Spirit of Innovation Challenge Summit.
The Greeners are one of 20 teams from around the world that have been selected to compete in the final round of the challenge, which will be held at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston next month.
The annual competition challenges high school students to develop new ideas in the areas of aerospace and aviation, cybertechnology and security, energy and environment, and health and nutrition, and create commercially viable products to benefit humanity. This is the second year in a row that an R-MA team has made it to the finals.
Last year, 16-year-old Ben Gillis attended the competition and was intrigued by another team's idea. The team was working with piezoelectric materials, which can be used as a mechanism to transfer mechanic energy - usually by vibration - into electrical energy that can be stored and used to power other devices.
"This team was trying to put PZT strips in the floor tiles of a bank, so that when people stepped on them, they would channel the force of the step into the piezoelectric crystals, which would produce electricity," said Ben, who is also a 'Greeners' team member.
"With that kind of foot traffic and vibration, you could seriously power a city," he said.
This year, Ben wanted to work with the same idea. Fellow team member, 16-year-old Grace Alexander, suggested working with a bike.
"It made sense to use the bike, because it's practically effortless," she said. "We wanted to capture energy and electricity from normal, every-day life."
PZT strips would be placed on the bike so they would vibrate with every turn of the wheel, she said. Another team member, Edwin Guyette, 17, said someone could charge their phone or other device just by "taking a ride around the city."
"We're thinking if we put it in cities and everyone used the bikes, it could actually power the city," Grace said. "It could cut down on traffic, people would be healthier ... it would truly be a green city."
After putting in extra hours on the project during lunch and free time, the students are finishing up their proposal, and are even in the process of getting a patent.
Besides the competition itself, the students also are looking forward to the setting.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've loved NASA," Ben said. "I mean, we're going to the ground center. When they say, 'Houston, we have a problem,' that's where they're talking about."
Edwin said he hoped their work would help "put R-MA on the map."
"The school and [school President] General [Henry} Hobgood have been very supportive," he said.
The students also credited their physics and engineering teacher, Dave Gillis, with "helping them through thick and thin." Gillis is also Ben's father.
"He knows what he's talking about, and he knows exactly how to communicate it to us," Edwin said. "He makes it look so effortless. He won't let us give up."
Gillis said he's excited for the students to "rub elbows" with those who attend the competition, including world renowned scientists, government officials and leading entrepreneurs.
"Where they're going and the people they get to meet ... ," Gillis said, pausing as a tear came to his eye, "It's all an addition to their network that they would never get other wise. These kids have an amazing ideas, and they are still making breakthroughs."
He said he is most impressed with the fact that the project is completely student driven.
"I've just been a guide," Gillis said.
The team members are confident, and say they feel they could win the whole competition, which awards a $10,000 grant for the winners to continue product development.
"All our friends think the idea is really cool, even if they don't understand all the complicated details," Grace said. "But I do ... I think we can win."
To follow the team's work, look for The Greeners page on Facebook.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org