West Salem team wins regional science competition, goes to nationals

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West Salem team wins regional science competition, goes to nationals

Published 5:07 p.m. PT March 27, 2017 | Updated 5:12 p.m. PT March 27, 2017

A team of young women from West Salem High School has a solution for your exploding phone, laptop, or hoverboard.

The team of four sophomores and juniors recently became one of 24 regional winners in North America for the 25th annual Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision program, the world’s largest K-12 science competition.

They competed against more than 5,000 teams from the United States and Canada.

The West Salem team saw the exploding lithium-ion batteries in phones, laptops and other increasingly common hand-held devices and mobile technologies as a major problem. The problem, said sophomore  Sophia Hawley, comes from a build-up of lithium in the batteries.

Their solution? Invent a new kind of battery, the qSafe battery, that uses surface acoustic waves, a specific kind of sound wave, to break up the lithium before it can build to dangerous levels.

Sophomore Alexa Montgomery said they were seeing this problem happening a lot, especially after the recent Samsung phone ban on airplanes. She said companies are starting to cut corners and aren’t paying attention to safety the way they should.

“Our battery (would) still be efficient, but a safer approach,” she said.

The girls also want a more sustainable, “green” future. Their battery would be made of energy-efficient and socially conscious materials, using the more commonly found iron pyrite, rather than cobalt which is often mined by child workers in central Africa.

The process for the project began when junior Marcella Cross and science teacher Michael Lampert decided to form a team for the competition last fall.

The goal of the competition is for teams to think of problems that currently face society or problems they foresee arising in the next 20 years, junior Emma Fagan explained. Then, the teams have to come up with a solution to the problem and write an 11-page academic paper to explain it.

“I found the nicest and smartest people I knew,” said Cross, signaling around the table to her team of Fagan, Montgomery, and Hawley.

When the team first started, the girls didn’t really know how batteries worked, they said, let alone what the solution might be to the lithium problem.

But after many 14-hour days and research with their mentors, they crafted the paper that took them to nationals.

According to the Nation Science Foundation, men make up about 70 percent of all science and engineering jobs, though more women are taking part. Race and other factors play a role as well — together, Asian and underrepresented minority women represent about 1 in 10 people employed in science and engineering occupations.

However, this isn’t stopping young women like the West Salem team from pursuing their dreams to join the professional world of science.

“We get a lot of people who are surprised (we are) a team of four blondes,” said Montgomery, laughing.

This is just the first round. The team is now focusing on nationals.

For the next round, the team has to design a website for their product, create a prototype, and make a video about it, all of which needs to be submitted by April 7. They will know by early May if they win.

Two winning teams will be flown to Washington, D.C., to present their project to U.S. representatives and senators.

“It takes a lot of hard work and dedication,” Montgomery said. The team plans to use anytime they can over spring break to work on the project.

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.

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