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Growth of ideas win 2020 Caring for the Kenai

Anna DeVolld

The 30th annual Caring for the Kenai program ended up finishing virtually, given the coronavirus pandemic, but the winning projects will make real-world differences.

The program usually ends in April with students giving their presentations and standing for questions from judges. But that part was put on hold until August, with the final judging happening over videoconferencing Aug. 6.

“We did a lot of planning, a lot of thinking and we had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to do for our 30th anniversary and, of course, everything changed. And this shows how the real-world experience of Caring for the Kenai helps the next generation change. And what you’ve learned from this, what we’ve learned from this, gives us all a lot of hope for the future,” said Merrill Sikorski, program founder and director.

Caring for the Kenai challenges high school students to come up with a project to better care for the environment of the Kenai Peninsula or improve the area’s preparedness for a natural disaster. Finalists and their schools get cash prizes. Students can participate with the same project more than once but repeat entries are judged on what they’ve done to further their project in the last year, rather than the initial idea.

First place went to homeschool student Anna DeVolld and her Promote Our Pollinators project. She won third in Caring for the Kenai last year, with her idea to create flower kits that help feed pollinators in areas where natural vegetation has given way to concrete and buildings. Since then, she’s expanded her outreach for her POP project and created a school curriculum. And she plans to keep on growing.

“I’ve gotten my business license and right now I’m working on a business plan for selling curriculum kits to teachers and home-school parents,” DeVolld said. “... Activity books, flyers, pollinator pack planting supplies —  like seeds, six-plant pots, soil, pot plant tags and care instructions — curriculum, a teacher’s gift and other POP goodies. I also hope to continue to come up with ideas to promote pollinators on the peninsula.”

Second place went to the team of Lindy Guernsey and Akilena Veach from Seward. They placed second last year, as well, for building a drone using 3-D printers at school and using it to survey Seward’s floodplains. Since then, they’ve provided the Seward Flood Board with important data to help prevent property damage, and they’re thinking of other ways their drone program could be useful.

“As we saw last summer when we had crazy fires everywhere is using drones to monitor fire areas, which can reduce the danger to our human firefighters who have to go out and see the lines sometimes themselves. So sending up an aerial view can reduce the need for that,” Veach said.

In third place was Austin Cline from Homer High School. He won Caring for the Kenai last year for engineering a mechanism to recycle plastic into 3-D printing material. Since then, he redesigned the process to only require one machine, rather than two, to make it more efficient and cost-effective. He sees lots of ways his recycling machine can be useful in supporting 3-D printing.

“The coolest part of my project that I see is the educational aspect of it. That our STEM programs in Alaska are kind of minimal and I know, at least at Homer High School, we have 3-D printers but after budget cuts and everything, we haven’t had classes,” Cline said. “And especially what’s holding back those classes is not only teacher numbers but also just the materials that would be necessary, so that’s where free materials from recyclables come in. That would make it really amazing.”

Fourth place went to Nekoda Cooper of Kenai Central High School, for creating a market for imperfect fruits and vegetables that otherwise would be wasted. Cook Inlet Academy’s Elyse Ledda took fifth place with a project to make Polystyrene printer material from recyclable plastics. And Ashley Dahlman from Soldotna High School took sixth place with an idea for collecting and reselling clothes to reduce waste.

Other finalists were:

  • Andrew Gaethle, from Kenai Central High, with his plan to reduce beetle-killed trees;
  • Carter Kincaid, from Soldotna High, reducing waste by recycling clothing;
  • Madison Story, of Homer High, with beneficial bins for increased recycling;
  • Regan Evans, of SoHi, taking a look at environmental impacts of homelessness;
  • Jesse Wahl, from Cook Inlet Academy, who is preparing for the zombie apocalypse; and
  • Emily Lamb, of Cook Inlet Academy, with preparation against a thousand ways to die in Alaska.

The students and participating teachers will receive their awards at a joint, Kenai-Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon at noon Aug. 19 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. It’s open to the public but admittance will be limited. Call 283-1991 to RSVP.

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