Thursday, December 07, 2023

Kalispell Middle School students dominate national design contest

Daily Inter Lake | June 23, 2023 12:00 AM

Inspired by nature, Kalispell Middle School seventh-graders created award-winning designs that took first, second and honorable mention in the middle school division of the Biomimicry Youth Design Challenge.

Students Padmaja Vatti and Hilda Weber took first place for their “SeedSpinner” wind turbine project to make clean energy accessible and affordable. In second place was Szonja Czinner, Bridger Sunde, Sachi Kameya, Kruz Robinson, for “Diatom Brick House,” a project intended to create sustainable and affordable housing that reduces waste. Honorable mention went to Bowman Carlson, Trevor Hammer, Nicholas Neils and Roane Wiersma, for “Earthproof,” a project seeking to minimize the damage, injury and cost of earthquakes beginning with the design of homes.

Organized by the Biomimicry Institute, a Missoula-based nonprofit, the national competition challenges middle and high school students to look to nature to engineer designs that solve or mitigate a problem faced by people. In coming up with a design, students were tasked with combining the biological strategies of two or more organisms.

“That’s the whole point of biomimicry is that nature can solve its own problems,” Wiersma said.

This is the third year seventh-graders in science teacher Annie Gustafson’s science class and English language arts teacher Ashley Skare, have used the competition as a cross-curricular assignment to engage students in the scientific and engineering process and study of evolution.

Roughly 110 students broke up into teams and spent three weeks brainstorming, researching, designing, building and testing models, then documenting the process in project portfolios and video pitches to submit to the two teachers. Gustafson and Skare then selected six projects to submit to the contest.

CHAMPIONS VATTI and Weber combined certain attributes of the Japanese maple seed, aspen leaf and dragonfly wings to improve the design of wind turbines.

“We used dragonfly wings because of their flexibility, aspen leaves because of its flat stem, and maple seeds because their structure is critical for collecting kinetic energy. Our model is designed with blades made of light flexible plastic that picks up on light breezes, but doesn’t break in rough winds,” the team members stated in their project abstract.

“The hardest part about the designing was getting this to translate into an actual model that could function,” Vatti said during an interview at the middle school.

Weber said she thought the difficult part of the project was the writing. Skare agreed the portfolios could pass muster at the high school level.

“You're looking at almost an eight to 10-page portfolio that is done by them, which is very challenging for any middle schooler. They’re typing up maybe five paragraphs total, but here they are dealing with a lot more but also talking [us] through the science and engineering process: What went well? What didn’t? What did they discover? What did they learn? How did they apply that to their design or model?” Skare said.

One of the problems Vatti and Weber wanted to solve in innovating traditional wind turbine designs is something called “root leakage.” Vatti summarized it as an issue where suction is created in the center of the turbine, where the blades meet, and energy is lost.

“The maple seeds, when it falls, the way it rotates it creates suction on the edges instead of just in the center and that power can be utilized,” she said.

“We used a more supple material so it would bend,” Weber added, which translates to flexibility under strong winds and more movement in breezes.

While testing it and monitoring a weather station, Weber noted,

“It actually clocked the wind speed at 0.0 but our model still spun.”

THE SECOND-place “Diatom Brick House,” project was inspired by local issues such as affordable housing and, Czinner said, a damaging hail storm that hit in July 2022 that caused widespread damage.

What the group came up with was a housing design that incorporates “the structural strength of diatom frustules and mycorrhizal fungi to create the diatom brick, and the strong three-layer shell of the golden-scale snail for the roof,” their project abstract states.

“When we were researching, we found this really, really amazing organism. It's microscopic. It's called the diatom and it lives in the ocean,” Czinner said.

A frustule is the hard and porous external layer of the diatom and is made almost entirely of silica.

“Compared to its weight, it is really strong,” Czinner said,

Pointing to a diagram of the team’s hypothetical house she elaborated on the technology of the roof.

“Well, what we focused on was the [snail] shell, because it has three layers. And it's very good at absorbing any sort of shock,” she said, referring to the hail storm.

She also described how it is structurally reinforced similar to how jet ants build their nests by injecting mycorrhizal fungi with a chewed wood particle/sugar solution.

“Which acts as food for the fungi, which then grows and it solidifies and makes their nests more structurally sound,” she said.

WIERSMA AND Carlson said the idea for their “Earthproof” houses came on the heels of the February 2023 Turkey-Syria earthquake which caused catastrophic damage to infrastructure and nearly 60,000 deaths.

“Our goal was to create houses that could sustain, well maybe not sustain, but will take less damage from earthquakes,” Wiersma said.

The group researched attributes of the woodpecker’s spongy skull, the hexagonal shape of honeycomb, and the root system of the Jack pine to come up with a final design that was sturdy and used space efficiently. The team 3-D printed a hollow dodecahedron with a foam layer in the interior. Underneath the house, were artificial stems that angled outward. Carlson and Wiersma said the idea would be to create an underground, artificial root system that interconnects the homes in a neighborhood. The root system, combined with the hexagonal-shaped walls and shock-resistant foam interior would be done to stabilize the structures during an earthquake and distribute seismic waves outward, according to Carlson.

One of the exciting parts of the project for the “Earthproof” and “Diatom Brick House,” teams was touring Applied Materials. The company also provided a $2,500 grant that went toward purchasing iPads for the two classrooms.

“So we were able to talk to real working engineers and talk to them about our projects,” Czinner said. “And we got a tour — so just looking at career options.”

For some students, such as Czinner, making the contest a required assignment was the push they needed to step out of their comfort zone, she said. Czinner said she’s thought about trying to enter the science fair, for example, but never went through with it. After completing this project, she’s eager to continue refining her team’s designs.

Skare added that the competition opens up opportunities down the line for students to earn college scholarships.

“It’s very rewarding once they realize their idea worked, and just the fact that they can make this a reality and possibly, you know, bring this to life. It's something that our local community or even the world can use at some point.”

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Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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