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These teens could one day help solve the pollution woes and other environmental issues confronting Utah.
Three student projects from Olympus Junior High in Holladay recently won $30,000 and the chance to earn a larger prize in the national Lexus Eco Challenge, which inspires youngsters to learn about the environment and take action to improve it. The challenge will award a total of $500,000 in grants and scholarships.
The school's Geothermal Awareness Team won $10,000 for researching and educating the community about geothermal energy.
The recent prize, in round two of the challenge, followed winning $10,000 projects from Olympus in round one the R4E: Recycle for the Earth team that raised awareness about the importance of recycling and the Kookaburras team, which made birdhouses to protect biodiversity.
Olympus science teacher JoAnne Brown started her students in the Eco Challenge in 2007, when they created a half-acre school garden filled with native plants. There was a hiatus after she underwent treatment for breast cancer in 2010. But this year, she said, "we're back on top."
"Each project is like an Eagle Scout project," Brown said. "Here's the problem in our community, and it's all about solutions."
Teams are required to define an environmental issue that is important to them, develop a plan to address it, implement the plan and report on the results. Each winning high school or middle school team earned $10,000 in scholarships and grants to be shared among the students, teacher and school.
The three Olympus Junior teams had 15 students who spent time on the projects during class, but also more than 100 hours working outside school.
Campbell Kehl, 12, explained the Kookaburras team.
"We are focusing on the European Starlings taking over from Utah native birds, so we built a birdhouse so only natives can get in," Campbell said. "With five people to build the birdhouses, it took an hour or two to put them together. It was cool we could all do it together and make birdhouses with used, recycled items."
Anna Michelle, 14, helped on the geothermal team.
"Our main goal was to publicize and let the community know about it ... that it can be a clean energy for the environment," Anna said. "I found out more about cleaner energy, it's much cheaper and helps the skies."
Their wins have secured each team an invitation to participate in the final challenge for a chance at one of two $30,000 grand prizes and eight $15,000 first-place awards.
"We're thrilled at Lexus that we can continue to support the program and encourage young students to take action to better the environment," Mark Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager, said in a statement.
Here are some of the other middle school teams that Utah will be competing against in the final round.
• New Jersey: "Breaking Wind" by All Saints Regional Catholic School: Created a way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil by creating electricity using a small, 12-blade model wind turbine.
• New Jersey: "CO2 Crew" by Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School: Addressed the dangers of cars idling within the school and asked parents to take a pledge; raised money to replace trees that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
• Texas: "Green Our School" by Evans Middle School: Created awareness of energy conservation with turning classroom lights off when not in use and raising money to install Pavegen energy tiles.
• Kentucky: "Eco Excitement" by School for the Creative and Performing Arts:- Raised awareness of the environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption.
This year's Lexus Eco Challenge launched in September and concludes with the announcement of the first place and grand prize winning teams after March 1.
In addition to the ongoing contest, the Lexus Eco Challenge also provides educational materials by Scholastic, the education publishing company, to encourage teachers to integrate creative lesson plans about the environment into their classrooms.