By Christine Pratt
WENATCHEE — How do you generate electricity with a transparent container, eight plastic spoons, four coils of copper wire, four coin-like magnets, a blank CD, a handful of other plastic doodads — and tap water?
Sixteen high school students from around the region did their best to figure that out Friday — with varying degrees of success — during the first-ever Hydropower and STEM Career Academy at Rocky Reach Dam.
With help from instructors Clyde Carpenter and Jack Horne, the students got their units’ tiny lights to illuminate when tap water put their improvised rotors and stators to work.
But not without considerable, mostly relevant banter among themselves.
“You’re doing it wrong, dude!”
“Don’t burn yourself!”
“I said contin-U-ity”
“You said contin-DU-ity”
“That’s because you’re deaf.”
“It’s been really fun to see the kids think this stuff through,” said Andy Dunau, executive director of the Spokane-based Foundation for Water & Energy Education (FWEE). He observed the furrowed young brows, as the students worked to assemble their complex turbine/generator units.
The dam’s own units were spinning and generating electricity in much the same way on the nearby powerhouse floor under the watchful eyes of the Chelan County PUD’s professional engineers, electricians and operators.
That was the whole idea of last week’s academy — to give science, technology, engineering and math-minded students (STEM) a hands-on look at how hydropower works and hear from the professionals, themselves, about the variety of career opportunities available at a public utility.
“For these kids, it’s about making connections they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to make,” Dunau said. “They can see careers they didn’t even know existed.”
Organizers for both FWEE and the PUD distributed application packets to high schools all over Chelan County.
Details and application instructions were also posted on the FWEE website, which yielded student applicants from Moses Lake and two from Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
A week’s course work culminated Friday with their generating unit project. The students earned one college credit good at Wenatchee Valley College and potentially other colleges elsewhere, organizers said.
The academy wasn’t “FWEE,” as the acronym implies. It actually cost $175 per student. But scholarships made it open to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.
“The cost was just to make sure the commitment was there,” Dunau said. “There is no kid who wants to be here who can’t be here.”
Based on the success of this year’s first academy, organizers have already decided to make it an annual event, he said. The students seemed to enjoy it.
“I thought it would be interesting to see all the career paths and look at what I’d like to do in the future,” said Zachary Vidrine, 16, of Moses Lake, while he and his teammate Bayley Babcock, 15, of Wenatchee adjusted the wiring of their generating unit.
“Engineering, science and math are strengths of mine,” added Babcock.
Alas, only one of the 16 students was female — 16-year-old Katie Keane of East Wenatchee.
“In male-dominated industries, girls get scared to challenge the social norm for what an engineer should be,” she said, adding that growing up in a house with a single mom gave her the courage to not be afraid.
She and her partner Isaac Janney, 16, of East Wenatchee, were the second-fastest team to get their generator unit working with water power.
Jaxon Ayling, 15, of Chelan, and Tyson Seidensticker, 15 of Cashmere, were the first.