Tracy Young discuses the ITEEA’s 2nd Annual Global Design Challenge for Elementary STEM Students with her class.

by Dave Warner

In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. These Grand Challenges were designed to cause students and educators to think about solutions to the big challenges affecting everyone’s life. Following ESC’s first very successful Global Challenge for elementary-aged students in 2018-2019, they came up with a new problem for 2019-2020.

One of the original Grand Challenges called for engineers to provide clean water that could make a difference for millions of people around the world. Currently, one of the largest threats related to water is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a collection of plastic and discarded trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.

“These are kids that were chosen from 4th and 5th grade for being respectful in class, hard workers and kids that are really interested in the building process,” said Tracy Young, Benton Hall Academy STEM teacher.

“Last year my kids won the grand design challenge, so we’re going to submit four different designs this year. They’re trying to figure out a way to solve the ocean pollution issue, so they’re learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” she said.

Students in her class have learned that this started in 1990. According to Young, “An ocean liner dumped 61,000 pairs of Nike shoes in the ocean to track where they were going and so many of them weren’t showing up because they were stuck in this vortex. That’s a lot of sneakers.”

Now they are tracking the kinds of plastics and how far they are traveling in the world’s oceans. “Some plastics are coming from the United States and they’re ending up at other locations on the earth,” she said.

The students are testing different ideas for the challenge, and some have already failed and been ruled out. “Once they finish testing them, they’re going to have to figure out how they’ll get pulled into the ocean. Is it going to be a boat or something from the air? They are all working very diligently on a solution,” stated Young.

According to the ITEEA, “Most conservationists agree that humans create too much waste and that actively reusing and reducing the number of single-use disposable products is the best way to reduce pollution problems. One way that people are responding, is by reusing drinking containers rather than discarding plastic drinking containers after one single use. A large percentage of the waste materials currently floating in the Pacific Ocean and other bodies of water is single-use plastic waste. By finding viable and economically feasible secondary uses for plastic containers originally designed for a single-use, we could substantially reduce the number of these items that end up in the water—thereby helping clean up our water sources.”

Young has middle school student Morgen Johnson assisting her with the after-school class. The deadline for the students to submit their work is December 15, 2019.