Kevin Welch had no idea when to expect the email.
He only knew the email from the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition would be coming any day. When it finally arrived and the Stewarts Creek Middle School STEM instructor clicked on it, the message was slow to load.
He waited longer than it took his body to make 72 million red blood cells and longer than it would have taken his students to run 200 meters.
Like really slow.
“That was the longest 25 seconds this year,” said Welch, and that is saying a lot considering all that has taken place in the past 10 months — devastating tornadoes in Middle Tennessee, an international pandemic and the Christmas morning explosion in downtown Nashville.
When it finally loaded, Welch said, “I was beside myself.”
His eighth-grade STEM class was selected as semi-finalists for the 2020–2021 Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest. Welch’s class will receive $15,000 in technology and classroom supplies to complete the project idea they submitted to the competition.
In this next phase, all nine students will work together to realize their vision by creating a three-minute demonstration video to compete for a chance to become one of 10 classes nationwide to have their prize increased to $65,000 as a national finalist, according to Stephanie Finley, M.Ed., a science and STEM specialist for Rutherford County Schools.
“I felt really good about the idea the students came up with and the proposal they put together,” Welch said. “They worked really hard on it, did a good job and I felt good about it, but it was still, you know, it is astounding to find out that of all the schools in the nation, they placed in the Top 75. I was beside myself.”
The project, which is open to classes from middle and high schools nationwide, calls on students to identify a problem in their community and, more importantly, develop a solution.
After a short discussion, the class focused on the tornadoes that impacted Putnam, Wilson and Davidson counties last March. The longer discussion had to do with coming up with their unique solution to the ongoing issues of tornadoes.
“It took a little bit because we had to research a lot of problems,” said Jayce Parker, an eighth-grader at Stewarts Creek Middle. “Everybody had kind of their own different versions. For instance, what I thought of is … an app that would track the tornado — where it’s going a little bit more accurately and where it’s been.”
Not everyone agreed with the app.
Welch saw his role as “tempering some really ambitious ideas … and giving some perspective.”
“I went a little ambitious,” said Victoria Welch. “I had done some research on how to actually dissipate a tornado and the only way to dissipate a tornado is a high frequency microwave.”
After asking themselves, “what can we do about it,” the class identified how few people have access to safety during a tornado.”
Then asked themselves another question, “What is something we can do to solve that.”
They came up with the idea of creating an accessible shelter that is both durable and accessible, and able to house two to four people during a tornado. The idea is for it to fit in a portable container or, perhaps, the trunk of a car or a closet.
“Now we really want to focus on getting a prototype together,” said Victoria Welch, who loves the challenges of the engineering design process, “and really seeing the research that goes (into the project).
She added, “We’re planning on making a prototype out of Kevlar and Spectar. Since it’s inflatable … the first step is we really have to research how inflatable are made, what kind of materials we would need for something this tough that has to endure (a lot).”
The class has been looking closely at inflatable kayaks made of Kevlar that can go over jagged rocks.
“I think it’s going to be really exciting to try and put this all together and just really see if it works,” Parker said, “and if we can go on to the next round that would be mind-blowing. … It would mean a lot to me because all that hard work would pay off. It would just be a huge success for everybody here because obviously there’s going to be a lot of work put into this.”
All nine students in this class have been enrolled in band for the past three years and in order to have time in the schedules for an additional elective, they give up a significant portion of their lunch break in order to enroll in Kevin Welch’s yearlong class.
“It’s the time where most students would go into the gym and have free time,” explained Victoria Welch, “but, for us, we took that time, and we decided instead to have a different class that actually goes for a grade and contributes to our report cards at the end of the semester.”
Kevin Welch concluded, “I’m super proud of this class. I’m also not overly surprised in that this group of students have a great work ethic.”
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT, Rutherford County Schools