Solving Real World Problems

Dec 17, 2014

While some high school kids are playing video games or watching movies on their cell phones,  eight students from Charlottesville are trying to solve a serious global problem – how to turn polluted water into something people can drink. 

Last fall,students at St. Anne’s-Belfield School decided to enter the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams challenge – a contest that awards 15 grants of up to $10,000 for research on real world problems.  Bob Troy chairs the high school’s science department. 

“Typhoon Haiyan had hit the Phillipines.  There were a number of people who didn’t have any potable water but were surrounded by water, and if we just had a way to make that water drinkable, it would solve an awful lot of problems.”

“So from there we started basically researching potable water standards and what would need to be taken out:  Large pieces of debris, chemicals, oil -- anything that could spill.”

Lauren Duseau says some filters remove bacteria while others get rid of chemicals, and the ones that do both are not ideal according to classmates Porter Sherman and Jisoo Han.

“Right now there are large, expensive, difficult to install filtration systems, which can be implemented after the fact. They’re hard to transport.  They’re very fragile, so if you drop it, it will break, and they’re very expensive.”

They wanted to come up with something that would cost no more than $3, be light but sturdy enough to air drop and be simple to use.  Here’s junior Jenna Bryant.

“Coming up with a filter that could be used all over the world and for various situations was really cool, and I was really excited to be a part of it.”

But to win, Porter Sherman says, they had to be strategic.

“We looked at the past inventions that have won a prize, and there were a lot of robotic innovations, but the purpose of the Lemelson-MIT grant is to help communities in need across the world, we thought it would be more effective to design a cheap, easy to use filter, instead of looking for the most complex, most expensive solution.”

The judges were apparently convinced.  They awarded the team more than $9,200 to continue their work, and on June 18th, McKenna Borton says, they’ll visit Boston for Eureka Fest.

“It is a 3-day conference of all of the teams who’ve received grants to present their findings, present their research and show what they’ve been able to come up with in solution to their problem.”

By then, they hope to have a perfect proto-type.  Junho Moon studies their third model, which relies on a coffee filter to remove some nasty looking gunk, and says it’s too soon to test their invention by taking a drink.

“Not yet.  Not yet.  Definitely not.”

But project consultant Jim Smith, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Virginia, thinks this team deserves credit for setting the bar high.

“They’re pushing the design limits.  They’re going low cost.  They’re going simple to use, easy to transport and removing everything!”

And if they succeed, he says, there are large relief agencies that will spend millions to get their hands on the filter students hope to develop.