Thursday, May 10, 2018


Touring our second treatment plant
While the older team was socializing all summer and supporting the team mate as his mother was fighting cancer, the younger kids were getting serious about their research project and looking for a topic.  This year, my next door neighbor got involved.  Her son has been on the team but she hasn't had lots of time.  She had just left her position at NOVA to write a book and so had the flexibility to help out which was great!

The year's theme was Hydrodynamics.  That's a mouthful of a topic and was a bit hard to get our arms around at first.  From the brief info they had given us (the full description comes out in September), we knew it had to do with the human water cycle - water that humans use for consumption, cooking, bathing, or manufacturing and how to get it or use it better.

Learning a ton about valve systems, flocculation, turbidity,
and other chemical engineering
This is the part of the year that is the hardest - learning enough about the topic to find a problem to solve.  The kids started brainstorming and watching videos to learn.  Nothing like having a NOVA person on your team - contacts and knowledge where to find videos!  So we started with the NOVA on the Flint water crisis.  The kids were engrossed and we stopped it over and over again.  That led us to tour the Cambridge water treatment plant and we ended up in the control room with the guys manning the system after the tour talking about problems and 'if we could' solutions.  Up at our annual weekend away, we took pond water and tried treating it and measuring turbidity.  The kids found some possible methods using light scattering and maybe some cheap ways to measure downstream so plants could tune their treatments faster.  Once they had some concepts - it was off to another treatment plant, this time on a river system, to check to see if the ideas were viable.

BTW - we know a lot about water treatment now and how it isn't a one sized fits all solution but unique and uniquely built for every watershed.  Crazy!  But we found out that the problem we had thought we could solve had a different unique solution that had been implemented.  Crud.  Back to the drawing board, and truthfully the kids had expressed over and over that while water treatment was obviously really important.... it was kinda boring.

Ok.  Back to brainstorming.  We started looking at lists of crazy ways people were harvesting water in deserts, in drought racked California, and ways to desalinate.  Things like fog nets to condense fog to water crops.  There were some crazy ideas to make shower nozzles that cut you off after a short time when showering and one to put turbines in the pipes so when you flushed - you charged your phone.  Ok - that one got shot down after some big calculations and one 'what happens if the phone falls into the toilet thought experiment'.

During one of the random brainstormings, we got into a giggle fest.  We had a new girl on the team whose father had brought them from India just a year before.  We had met him randomly and just as randomly robots had come up - come to find out in his spare time he is a LEGO master builder, had started a non-profit which ran World Robotics Olympiad and First Lego League for all of India.  He had designed the WRO lego game and ran the international contest two years before hand and had a daughter on the Lexington FTC team.  I slyly asked him - got another younger kid??  Yes, in fact he did and she had tried FLL once in India but wanted to be an artist and have nothing to do with robotics.  I told him I am an artist and like robotics - bring her over.  And so I convinced her to give it a try again, that we are fun and like art too.  She is great and to his credit - as much as we would have liked the mentorship - he was smart to stay away this first year so it was her and not her dad's thing.  She is totally hooked now and looked up at me from the computer one day and exclaimed that CAD work is just being a digital artist!

So anyways, the kids start getting into the idea of harvesting water.  She had a totally different perspective because in India and most of the world, your drinking water is delivered and you must do things to keep the staid water safe.  She got on the idea of harvesting snow for our US drinking water at each house.  The giggling came when she kept talking about a snow butt.  It took a lot of figuring out to realize that in English english - butt was a collection barrel.  It took us quite a bit of talking to convince her that while it was feasible - that the US system was so convenient right now it wouldn't take commercially as people would rather turn on their taps.  That was when a dad walked in for pick up and heard us talking about melting snow and turned us onto a really cool problem.

The walk up dispensary of drinking water in Boston
that sells water to immigrants
On a side note - this concept of getting your drinking water delivered came up again later at the Boston Community Center.  We were there helping them with their FLL project and robot and in talking with the kids, we realized that so many were immigrants, that they all walk down the street to an local shop to get drinking water weekly.  We were astonished.  In these poor immigrant communities in downtown Boston, they think that the drinking water from the tap is contaminated like in their previous countries and so they send their kids with containers to a local place that sells water from a tap.  Of course we all know that the tap comes from the same water system!!! But they don't and so they buy drinking water from a local tap.  I was furious, if their water had lead in it from their pipes, ok - that is needed, but should be corrected by the state - but if not, they are being preyed upon.  We got the kids hooked up with a local lab to test their public housing water for free to see if the pipes were bad (ala Flint) or if they could stop sending their kids on water errands!!  We learn a lot doing this robot thing, you see, and it isn't all just technology.

So back to the dad... he is an outdoor enthusiast and overheard the talk about snow butts.  He brought up that melting snow for drinking water was a big problem for hikers.  You can't eat snow as it will lower your body temperature and it takes a great deal of energy to melt it in your body, expending needed resources - some people can suffocate melting it in their throat if fact.  And where do you have the biggest issue - Mt. Everest.

Ok, THAT got the kids attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment