By Monica Walton
JACKSON – This wasn’t your typical middle school class project, nor what it a typical summer for Neel Boteler, Lily Frances Garner, Benjamin Manhein and Maley Thornhill. These four St. Richard School students spent their time engaging in creative, critical thinking, and lots of hard work — and it paid off big time! After winning the local, state and regional levels, they completed their sixth grade year with a trip to Washington DC, and earned first place in the nation at the 20th annual eCyberMission Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Competition sponsored by the US Army. More than 8,400 students registered to compete in the event, and our local students took home top honors in their division with a device to help reduce deer-related vehicle collisions. “Our team put in a lot of prep time,” said Maley Thornhill. “I didn’t realize it was going to take so much work, but at nationals it paid off!”
This was an experience unlike any other for these students. “We felt like kings!” said Neel Boteler. All agreed it was most definitely worth the hard work, and they felt proud to represent our state so well. “Hearing our name called was amazing,” said Lily Frances Garner. “We couldn’t believe our Mississippi team actually brought home the title for the first time. We showed that Mississippi kids are smart, too. It was awesome!”
Benjamin Manhein recalled the many hours of research and sorting through all their findings to determine what information would be most helpful to the project. “It was a good feeling when we knew we had what we needed and could begin building the Steer Clear Device,” he said.
The STEM competition invites students in grades six through nine across America to develop a “mission challenge” for their local communities and present a four-minute oral presentation followed by a question and answer session. The panel of judges consisted of U.S. Army scientists and engineers who work at Army laboratories and centers across the country. Ultimately, the goal is to foster student interest in a STEM career thus “cultivating an enduring, high-caliber workforce to provide tomorrow’s soldiers with the capabilities they need to protect our national interests across the globe.”
The St. Richard team named, “Oh Deer!” decided to take on the challenge of a common Mississippi problem – deer-related vehicle accidents. Their project was inspired by personal experience when one teammate’s father was involved in a deer collision causing extensive damage to his car. The team wanted to develop something that would deter deer without harming them and prevent them from running out into oncoming traffic potentially saving countless lives and thousands of dollars in vehicle damage. As they began their research, they discovered that current devices on the market aren’t very effective. They learned that deer can hear at higher pitches than humans, and while deer can see ultraviolet light, they do not see well above eye level. The resulting invention is “Steer Clear Deer” — a device that can be attached to a vehicle or placed on the roadside. It uses light and sound with changing patterns in ranges deer can see and hear, but humans cannot. Field testing and trials using those two deer senses showed great success in deterring deer with the least amount of risk to humans. “Don’t be surprised if you see ‘Steer Deer Clear’ on the shelves one day!” said Jennifer David, St. Richard School principal.
Team “Oh, Deer” brought home much more than a national title, though. Each team member received US Series EE Savings Bonds worth $10,000 at maturity, and they have new friends and great memories to treasure. While in Washington DC for the finals, the students participated in several activities including a Department of Defense Career Workshop Day, working in Army labs, learning about weapons systems, touring the National Zoo and several national monuments, and a showcase event highlighting all the student projects. “I learned more about the Army and how they do more than fight battles,” said Thornhill. “The activities showed us they also use science, technology and math to help our country in other ways.”
The weeklong event was also a unique opportunity to get to know the other students and advisors from around the country. They fostered new friendships and plan to stay in touch with some of them. “The future is very bright,” said advisor Ashley Klein. “I watched the kids grow, particularly in how they presented themselves. They were poised and confident and worked together beautifully. It was great seeing the amazing projects these kids undertook.” The seventh grade winning team from Texas featured the use of marine and freshwater algae as bioaccumulators of microplastics; the eighth grade winners from Illinois studied the impact of different soil additives on increasing the magnesium content in food crops, and determined a cost-effective and eco-friendly solution; and the ninth grade first place team from New Jersey determined the necessary components of a smart beehive system to optimize colony health.
During the awards ceremony, Maj. Gen. Brown, commanding general of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, inspired the students with these words, “Lots of careers can be exciting, many careers can be rewarding — financially and personally. But a smaller number of careers give you the chance to do something meaningful. To launch a first of its kind product, secure a patent or produce something that changes our way of life for the better is meaningful. Supporting our mutual defense and doing something that brings a soldier home alive is meaningful in a way that few other things are.”
The students were indeed inspired and feel this experience has opened up more opportunities for their future. Lily Frances Garner said it makes her feel like she can do anything she puts her mind to, including succeeding in high school. She is even considering the possibility of pursuing a STEM career like Engineering.