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Midvale Journal

Sixth-graders get standing ovation from EPA for bird scare device

Jul 25, 2017 12:18PM ● By Julie Slama

Four sixth-graders spoke at the EPA Region 8 meeting in Denver. They are (left to right) Timothy Holt, Eric Snaufer, Abigail Slama-Catron and Allison Drennan, shown here with USDA Airport Wildlife Biologist Bobby Boswell, who was acknowledged at the Denver presentation from the USDA, EPA and students for mentoring the team. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Two Midvale Middle School sixth-graders were amongst a student team who received a standing ovation from about 400 Environmental Protection Agency’s scientists and staff for developing an bird scare device that has been tested and proven effective at Salt Lake International Airport.

These students, who will receive the President’s Environmental Youth Award, presented their findings and demonstrated their device, called a Bionic Scarecrow, at the EPA Region 8 all-hands meeting July 18 in Denver.

“The President (of the United States) has joined EPA to recognize young people for protecting the nation’s air, water, land and ecology,” EPA Assistant Regional Administrator Darcy O’Connor said. “It’s one of the most important ways that EPA and the President demonstrate commitment for the environmental stewardship efforts created and conducted by our nation’s youth.”

The team has been invited to EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. to receive the honor that has only been awarded to a handful of students each year since its inception in 1971. Currently, they are fundraising for the Aug. 28 awards ceremony through a GoFundMe site:

“The award is a huge honor, but we didn’t go about trying to earn it,” said team member Abigail Slama-Catron, who attends Midvale Middle School with teammate Eric Snaufer.  “We’re concerned about making a positive difference in our environment.  Individually, we’ve picked up litter on trails and parks, planted trees, marked storm drains and other projects, but together, we can make a larger impact.”

Abigail said that their device may be a way to effectively help airport wildlife staff reduce bird strikes, which may prevent similar incidents as the one commonly known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

In January 2009, 155 people survived an emergency landing in the Hudson River after a flock of Canada geese struck a U.S. Airways flight minutes after leaving LaGuardia, New York airport.

“We not only identified a need, but we created an answer — and it works,” said Allison Drennan, who attends Beehive Science and Technology Academy with teammate Timothy Holt. “We’ve built several Bionic Scarecrows that the airport is using now and they want more.”

Eric said that the sixth-graders got together under their team name, Bionic Porcupines 2.0, to compete in the FIRST LEGO League competitions. One part of the contest is to create a project that could impact their community.

“After sending emails and calling several people in our community, the airport officials invited us there,” Eric said. “They explained the problem that 218 birds hit airplanes last year. Our team thought that the project was pretty challenging. I hadn’t thought about it until I researched and became engrossed in it.”

Eric said that a recent Cornell University study showed random motion scares away birds. So the group decided to create a miniaturized air dancer that was small, portable, waterproof and environmentally friendly. Using a toolbox, a car battery and a water-resistant fan, they put together the basics — along with sewing a nylon windsock that randomly scares away the birds.

In addition to research and hands-on experience, the sixth-graders learned skills from designing the device to using power tools and learning about soldering and electronics.  The team also sewed and surged the ripstop windsocks that are being tested.  They’ve bonded as a team and have improved their oral speaking skills through presentations from local classrooms to the EPA presentation.

The team spent several hours at Salt Lake International Airport with United States Department of Agriculture Airport Wildlife Biologist Bobby Boswell, who also was acknowledged at the Denver presentation from the USDA, EPA and Bionic Porcupines 2.0 for mentoring the team.

“We discovered that the problem was larger than we realized at first because many airports are located on the birds’ migratory routes and habitats,” Abigail said. “We’re wanting to share our Bionic Scarecrows because they save lives — both the peoples and the birds.”

Their devices will save airport officials money on current more expensive methods of scaring the birds as well as save airlines about $900 million per year in damaged planes, Timothy said.

“We have a provisional patent so we’re able to produce more Bionic Scarecrows to help stop bird strikes at other airports and places around the world,” Timothy said.

Their innovative project hasn’t gone unnoticed. After winning the FIRST LEGO League qualifier’s champions award, they won the most innovative project in Utah state competition and their Bionic Scarecrow was named one of 60 most innovative projects in the world.

In April, the team joined by Allison’s older sister, Katie, also participated in the Utah High School Entrepreneur Challenge at the University of Utah and were awarded $1,000 for the best prototype.

“It was an incredible experience to see up-and-coming entrepreneurs showcase their hard work and pitch their idea to the judges,” said Stephanie Gladwin, entrepreneur challenge chair.

Katie, who worked mostly on the business plan, presented the project to judges.

“They were pretty excited about it,” said the Alta High freshman. “Through the presentation, I learned about the world of business, terminology and other financial spreadsheets that I can use in my future. It was really amazing to be the youngest teams at the challenge and to win an honor for best prototype.”

Abigail and Eric also represented the team to present their innovative project at the regional Salt Lake Valley Science and Engineering Fair, where they won the elementary division category of mechanical engineering as well as received special awards from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Utah Department of Transportation. They also were invited to apply to the National Broadcom Science Fair.

Abigail also presented the LEGO team’s project at the Canyons Film Festival, where the film won best middle school documentary.

“It’s great to be recognized for our hard work, but what meant the most was when we went to the airport to see our project actually work and see that we are making a difference in the world,” Abigail said.

Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe complimented the team for their hard work outside the classroom.

“I’m very proud of the innovative and practical approach these students took to try to save lives and have a positive impact on our community,” he said.  “I know I’ll feel much safer flying out of Salt Lake City, and I’ll be on the look out for Bionic Scarecrows.”

However, the team isn’t content to stop their desire to improve the environment.  While in Denver, they toured EPA’s lab, meeting with several scientists to see how they test surface water, as well as discussed water issues and problems with a panel of 12 other scientists so they can pursue an innovative water project. 

The Bionic Porcupines 2.0 also received compliments on their bird scare device and suggestions on how to expand it to other usages, such as in mining operations and beaches where there are bird issues.

EPA Acting Deputy Regional Administrator Suzanne Bohan said that the Bionic Porcupine 2.0 team has set the bar high.

“These student winners are exemplary leaders, committed to strong environmental stewardship and problem solving,” she said. “Environmental education cultivates our next generation of leaders by teaching them to apply creativity and innovation to the environmental challenges we face as a nation.  I have no doubt that students like these will someday solve some of our most complex and important issues.”