Faster, Whirlier, Stronger: Students Compete in Clean Energy Olympics

by | Apr 25, 2022 | Education, Energy, Engineering, Featured, News

Students from Girwood K-8 attended the in-person Clean Energy Olympics at Begich Middle School and won a prize for Best Communication.

Renewable Energy Alaska Project

Students in Southeast Alaska dominated the 4th annual Clean Energy Olympics engineering challenge by designing and building wind turbines.

Blowing Away the Competition 

More than seventy students participated in the competition March 26 through 31 at Begich Middle School in Anchorage, which happens to have its own on-campus wind turbine. The teams were divided between ten at the event in person and another eighteen joined remotely.

The hybrid event is a switch from last year’s all-virtual presentation. As a result, turnout doubled compared to past years, according to Colleen Fisk, energy education director for the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), which has organized the event since 2018.

The winners in the 4th to 8th grade category were a team from Klawock, Bobs the Builders. For the 9th to 12th grade category, the winners were Yaquleq, a team from Quinhagak attending Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. In fact, the residential school supplied the top three high school teams, including students from Buckland and Old Harbor.

Fisk notes that all the virtual teams were from Southeast Alaska. She says teachers in that region made the project part of their classes.

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The goal of the competition was to maximize power output from a turbine tested in a four-foot-square wind tunnel. Teams at remote locations were subject to the same size restriction and tested with a box fan.

Fisk says the top teams tended to use large blades. “The longer the blade, the more power that you can capture out of the wind,” she explains. “Maximizing the size without going too heavy; there’s always tradeoffs for these engineering design competitions. That was one of the big tradeoffs they have: bigger without being too heavy.”

Young engineers had to experiment with blade size, number, material, and pitch angles optimized for two different wind speeds.

“The focus is on the blades as well as the gearing,” Fisk adds. “The standard wind turbine they can purchase to start with for their activity has one set of gears, but the advanced teams added another set of gears, stepping up the power.”

Teams were also quizzed on their knowledge, and a panel of judges evaluated designs based on innovation, use of materials, and data collection. The combined score determined the winners.

The in-person event also had an “instant challenge” where students had a half-hour to build a turbine tower using popsicle sticks, clay, and pipe cleaners. Team Flower Power won that challenge. Two teams at the in-person event also placed in the 4th to 8th grade category, both from American Charter Academy in Wasilla.

The top two teams earned an invitation to the National KidWind competition in San Antonio, Texas next month.

One of the Mount Edgecumbe winners, a student named Marilyn, says, “What I am most looking forward to by competing in nationals is meeting new people, having fun, and just being able to compete.”

Experience Success

Clean Energy Olympics

Wind tunnel testing of student-built turbines at the Clean Energy Olympics in March 2022.

Renewable Energy Alaska Project

In last year’s national competition, two teams from American Charter Academy placed 2nd and 5th, coached by science teacher Carol Drake.

“The KidWind Challenge has given us the opportunity to encourage students to problem-solve, work together as teams, and experience success in their teamwork, design, and implementation of ideas,” Drake says.

Travel costs are covered by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, which also paid for training teachers, providing supplies, and renting Begich Middle School for the event.

The Clean Energy Olympics are also sponsored by Cook Inlet Region Inc., Matanuska Electric Association, and Alaska Electric Light and Power, which paid for catering the event and provided prizes of medals and solar-powered battery packs.

While the national level of competition deals exclusively with wind power, REAP is open to any form of clean energy, as the name of the event indicates. “Last year, we opened it up to hydro, solar, and efficiency as well, but almost all of the projects were wind,” Fisk says. Not only is turbine technology what teachers are trained in, but wind projects feed into the national KidWind competition. She hopes to see more solar and hydro at next year’s Clean Energy Olympics.

Ultimately, Fisk says the event is meant partly to build a workforce to design, install, and maintain clean energy infrastructure of the future. More broadly, she says the aim is to increase energy literacy so that students can make choices for their community. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about wind,” Fisk says, “so the more that we can address that, the better.”

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