The Technical Trojans should give us all hope for the future.
Last week, I was honored to spend a few hours with the Technical Trojans’ Black Team, comprising seventh and eighth graders at James Weldon Johnson College Preparatory School. On Feb. 3, these 10 kids will compete in the First LEGO League regional competition, which has a robotics portion wherein they program a robot to perform various tasks, and a real-world problem-solving portion wherein they research and find a solution to a serious issue plaguing our planet.
This year the theme is hydrodynamics; for their project, the Technical Trojans chose to take on one of the peskiest scourges affecting the world’s water supply: microplastics. Also known as microfibers, these are tiny, pernicious bits of plastic that shed from clothes in the wash. Athletic gear with that oh-so-popular wicking feature is particularly to blame; worse, as the clothing ages, it releases more and more fibers in each wash.
Microplastics are so small that they can be seen with only a microscope; through their research, the Technical Trojans found that 95 percent of the little rascals are smaller than a grain of sand. As such, they pass through most any commercial or after-market filter, making their way into the water supply, the ocean, and all the life that depends on it—even you. That’s right, at least a portion of your body is made of plastic that you didn’t pay a surgeon big money to implant or inject. Not only that, but the kids explained to me that microplastics also behave much like sponges, absorbing and retaining all sorts of harmful pollutants and other contaminants that later can be released into water, soil, plants, fish, livestock, humans, etc. If that’s not bad enough, they’re also known to scratch intestinal and stomach linings, as well as the esophagus.
Suffice to say, microfibers are awful. The kids told me Dr. Maia McGuire of the University of Florida informed them that microfibers have even been found at the source of Florida’s springs and in our aquifers.
In spite of the seriousness of the problem and the fact that, as the kids explained, 60 percent of all clothing is manufactured with polyester and other fabrics of that ilk, none of the experts seems to have any realistic solutions to the more than 27 million, according to Technical Trojans’ research, being released every time someone does a single load of wash. There are products on the market that purport to collect or filter microfibers in water. The only problem is that the kids found they don’t exactly work. Like, not at all.
The situation is, in a word, grim … unless someone comes up with a solution, or perhaps someones, such as 10 passionate, talented, creative middle-schoolers.
So the Technical Trojans, with some guidance from two volunteer coaches, Kim Alvarez and Judy Andrews, and one very dedicated teacher, Mikalene “Mikie” Temples, started looking for a solution, speaking with Dr. McGuire, representatives from JEA and St. Johns County Utilities, an outlier among utilities nationwide for actually endeavoring to do something about microfibers on their own, and working with Steve Cooley, owner of A-1 Plumbing Supply Company, who helped them build the prototype.
Their prototype is relatively simple to assemble and install and is made of a filter sock, piece of PVC pipe, small mesh filter bag and three scouring pads, like for scrubbing pots and pans. The wire mesh ‘hooks’ in the scouring pad actually inspired an extremely catchy name: the Hydro Hooker Filter.
(Yes, the kids did giggle a lot about the name. Truth be told, so did I.)
The Hydro Hooker is also extremely inexpensive; at Lowe’s, the parts together cost them $17.50.
Right now you’re probably thinking, ‘That’s great, Goforth, but what about the results?’ Patience, Iago, patience. (Confession: I watched Aladdin way too many times in middle school.)
The Hydro Hooker removes 75 percent of the microfibers from the water in a load of wash. Seventy-five percent! It’s no surprise that they freaking aced the problem-solving portion of the competition’s first round and have focused their attention on improving their robotics’ performance. And, of course, getting the word out about their invention.
Though we only spent two hours together, this diverse group of kids—which includes seventh-graders Micah Andrews, Param Gattupalli, Prithvi Radhakrishnan, Carlos Alvarez, Fangze Chen and Sofia Lora; and eighth-graders Gokul Murali, Nandhu Ramkumar, Christian Perr and Sean Lang—left me with a warm, hopeful feeling for the future.
That a group of middle-schoolers would care enough to try to solve the very real, global problem of microfibers isn’t the only reason my feet hardly touched the floor as I left the classroom. For not only were these kids brilliant and funny—they were genuinely kind and compassionate, traits that will well serve them, and the planet, no matter what comes our way.
The First LEGO League regional competition will be at Prime Osborn Center on Feb. 3. Donate to the Technical Trojans at gofundme.com/jwj-technical-trojans-robotics.