A Davenport West High School class has won a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts-based Lemelson-MIT Program to invent, test and deliver a clean water filtration system for use in a Kenya village.
If that sounds like a tall order, you're right.
The grant was awarded in October, although work began with last year's senior class and likely will continue for at least another year, possibly longer, teacher Jason Franzenburg said.
The purpose of this capstone, or end-of-high-school, class is to learn the engineering design process by identifying and working through real-life problems. The class combines engineering, advanced manufacturing and computer science.
"My job is to take the kids through the design process and come up with a unique invention," Franzenburg said.
The first step, taken last year, was to find a problem. For that, Franzenburg offered direction. He invited the Rev. Josuha Ngao, founder of Fishers of Men Ministries, a Davenport-based Christian missionary organization, to talk to the class about needs in Kenya.
Access to clean water is a huge issue, Ngao told the students. While Ngao has secured funding for the drilling of wells — so that people don't have to walk long distances to ponds or other sources — the water still is not necessarily clean. It can contain bacteria and other substances that make them sick, he said.
"Close to 25 percent, especially the kids, die of water-borne diseases," he explained in an interview with the Times. "I grew up in Kenya and I had all those sicknesses when I was little. I was sick all the time."
Out of Ngao's presentation to the class grew the goal of developing a water filtration system that would be easy to operate and economical so that it could be replicated in Kenya, and Ngao became the students' client.
"What the West High School students are working one is going to reduce death," Ngao said. "It is awesome."
And if it works in one village, Ngao hopes he can take it to the nine other villages where he is operating his ministry.
Receiving the Lemelson-MIT grant was a big boost and honor, but the students would have forged ahead even if they had not received it, Franzenburg said. They would have raised money on their own, supplemented by money from the school district and the Davenport West STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Booster Club, he said.
As is, the grant will help pay for teacher time, purchase of prototype and testing equipment, promotional materials and food.
Deciding best filtration method
On a recent day at West, students in the class separated into smaller groups to work on various specific aspects of the project. At this point in the school year, they still are doing experiments to decide what kind of filtration method will work best to kill harmful bacteria and make water suitable for drinking.
Options involve using ultra-violet light; chlorine; and filtration through gravel, sand and a layer of good bacteria that eat bad bacteria.
The filtration method appeals to Ngao because it can be created by anyone and it is relatively inexpensive.
The use of UV would require electrical power, and that's expensive and hard to come by in Kenya. But, if students could come up with a way to create cheap power — via solar or water wheel for example — this could be a solution, too.
"We're not going to close the door on that," Franzenburg said. "We're still experimenting. What we may end up with is a hybrid."
Other aspects of the class, program
On Saturday, a sub-group of the students was expecting to gather at West from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. to work on building a prototype filter, based on drawings they created on computers. Supplies already have been purchased and are waiting for them.
While they are doing that, other students may be delivering Christmas wreaths that they made and sold as a fundraiser to support another aspect of the Lemelson-MIT Program. In June, teacher/coach Franzenburg expects to lead a group of at least 15 students and two other chaperones to an event called EurekaFest on the MIT campus.
The fest will provide professional development in invention education for Franzenburg and students will showcase their invention. Attendance is a requirement of the program.
Every aspect of Franzenburg's class teaches some sort of skill. Students have learned to do research not only by consulting written documents, but by consulting face-to-face with professionals, including professors at the University of Iowa and Western Illinois University. They also have arranged, and made trips to, Iowa-American Water to learn about that company's filtration methods.
Their work has involved communication, finances, leadership and collaboration.
Learning the process is key
Even if the students had not come up with a solution to the clean water problem, they would have learned the process, and that is key.
"We emphasize a process of inventing," Anthony Perry, with the Lemelson-MIT program wrote in an email.
The goal is for students to "gain experience and confidence identifying and solving real problems," he wrote. "We celebrate all of the products, of course, but the process lasts a lifetime."
West students are dedicated to finding a successful solution, though.
But even deciding on a filtration method and building a prototype system will not be the end of their work. A next step will be to create videos and instructional materials so that people in Kenya will be able to build and set up their own systems.
"It's a very involved project," Franzenburg said.
If successful, the results could affect a village of 22,000 people, he said.
There's even talk of future West students traveling to Kenya to analyze how the filtration system is working. In time, equipment and know-how could be dispersed throughout the country.
"We will implement our plan in a Kenya village," Franzenburg said. "This is not just a proposal that is never realized."