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11 year olds working on reliable energy project

Team Awesome Powassan, as the boys called themselves, decided to tackle the issue of how power outages affect people in their homes who use medical devices
Team Awesome Powassan with North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico at the Lego Robotics competition in North Bay. Team members left to right are Nate Riesen, Owen Armstrong and Levi Armstrong. The boys' nine-year-old brother Jacob Armstrong is the flag bearer, although he is not part of the team.

Three 11-year-old Powassan boys are taking the next step with a science project they created for last December's Lego Robotics competition in North Bay. It won them the second-place Champion's Award.

Twins Owen and Levi Armstrong and their friend Nate Riesen are doing more research as they get ready to present their exhibit on renewable and reliable energy sources at April's North Bay Regional Science Fair.

The boys' dads, Will Armstrong and Urs Riesen, were their coaches.

However, Armstrong emphasized the adults were there more as support and to keep the project on track adding the work carried out by the trio “was all the boys”.

The robotics competition is more than simply building robots that perform tasks. Armstrong said there is always a theme separate from the robotics component and the December competition centred on renewable and reliable energy sources.

With the theme set, it was up to the individual teams to incorporate a real-world problem into their projects and how to solve it.

Team Awesome Powassan, as the boys called themselves, decided to tackle the issue of how power outages affect people in their homes who use medical devices.

Armstrong says his elderly mother-in-law lives with his family and is dependent on various medical devices.

But when the power goes out, the devices become inoperable.

“The boys wanted to figure out if there was a way to power the medical devices when there's an outage,” Armstrong said.

Armsrong says after thinking it over, the boys realized that water in homes still runs and they wondered if it was possible to use the municipal water system in a way that would generate power in the home to run the medical devices.

One suggestion they discussed was if it was possible to have fish generate enough water current to turn a small generator that would create a small amount of electricity. The boys also wondered if it was possible to generate electricity using the water from the sewage treatment plant as it flows back into Lake Nipissing.

“They talked to the experts and it was determined there wasn't going to be enough pressure to turn a turbine,” Armstrong said.

Among the people the boys got input from at the December competition was Dave Miller, a retired hydroelectric engineer with North Bay Hydro.

“Dave Miller's comments were a big confidence booster to the boys,” Armstrong said. “It's not that their ideas might be a bit of a pipe dream.”

Armstrong said Miller found the exhibit from Team Awesome Powassan a refreshing idea and encouraged the boys to keep pursuing their ideas because technology is always changing and who knows what might be achievable in five or 10 years.

“When the boys heard that, they just loved that an idea of theirs could make a positive impact on their community and even the world,” Armstrong said. “It made them redouble their efforts and research.”

Armstrong says that's where the boys are now as they get ready to submit their renewable energy project to the spring science fair.

Armstrong says regardless of how the boys placed in December, the event was more than about winning.

“They learned how to work together,” he said.

“And one of the biggest things they learned was being able to conceptualize something, getting feedback on it, and then shifting their idea a bit to incorporate what they were told so that it makes more sense.”

Armstrong says the boys were humble enough to understand that what they proposed wouldn't work and realized there was value in changing the concept in order to improve it.

Armstrong says all three boys, who are homeschooled and are at a Grade 6 level, are very interested in science.

“They are bright and intelligent,” Armstrong said. “They like putting things together with their hands and working out problems.”

Their challenge now is to see how far they can improve their December project so it catches people's and judges' attention at the regional science fair.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.