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Texas Students Navigate Win in Ford STEAM Challenge

Ford NGL Helps Teens "Dream Big" in Charting Their Future

HARLINGEN, Texas – Explorers and pioneers become legendary by discovering new lands. In the 21st century, groundbreaking technology will be unearthed one day by today's innovative young people. The Ford STEAM High School Community Challenge is a demanding test for students on high school teams affiliated with Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) academies. Dozens of teams applied to see if they could make the grade and make people's lives better, but only one could claim the top prize.

"Our superintendent used the word trailblazing," said Arlette McClain, senior, Harlingen High School and a member of the winning team. "This challenge made us want to be the best. We wanted to win it."


And win they did. The Harlingen School District Robotics Community Service Team is sailing off with the $20,000 top prize for Project WAVE (Worldwide Automated Vessel Exploration) – this year's winner of the Ford STEAM High School Community Challenge. The goal of Project WAVE is to measure the amount of microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico and collect data on water quality and environmental conditions. The ambitious plan calls for renovating and automating a donated sailboat, equipping it with solar panels, scientific instruments and sealed batteries, and turning it loose for a trip across the gulf.

The winning project is the result of teamwork by students at three rival high schools in south Texas who showed they can work together successfully for a common purpose. The grant will be shared among Harlingen High School, which tackled construction and propulsion, Harlingen High School South, which focused on science and data collection, and Early College High School, which handled communication and navigation.

"This is a space they have never been in before. The kids are learning all kinds of new things - critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration," said Shane Strubhart, teacher/team leader. "Students are looking for meaning. Why is the key word. Kids ask why am I learning this, and we tie in engineering and STEAM."

"Growing up I didn't even know what an engineer was because I was a girl, I guess," added McClain. "I knew I wanted to help people and being exposed to engineering showed me how."

The grant money from Ford is being used to purchase navigation equipment, a trolling motor, lights, sensors, a beacon and other essential gear to make the project a reality. In addition to recording information on wind speeds, water temperatures, tides and currents, the nearly 14-foot long, Laser Class sailboat will carry equipment to gauge the quantity and types of microplastics in the water. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are polluting the global environment and invading the ecosystem through fish, turtles and birds. Project data will be gathered and made available to students in the district and integrated into science lessons.

"Ford NGL gave us permission to dream big," added Strubhart. "We want these kids ready to graduate and solve the world's problems."

"Ford NGL and this challenge give students real hands-on experience using their STEAM skills to develop and implement ideas that can benefit people and the community," said Patrice Washington, student relations manager, Ford NGL. "These young men and women also learn the importance of teamwork, research and collaboration with local experts and businesses to help ensure project success and keep it afloat."

The current plan is to test the unmanned vessel on practice runs to make sure everything is working properly. Then in November, following hurricane season, the boat will be launched in the Gulf of Mexico off the Texas coast, travel north past Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and on to Florida, where it will be scooped up by students and scientists at a university partner, examined and sent back to south Texas. The team is also looking into ways to stream data live from the vessel, if they can maneuver around obstacles, such as large file sizes. The one-way trip is expected to take 2-3 weeks, depending on weather and other conditions.

"My father was an engineer and once I got into the classes in high school it became obvious that this is where I belong," said Coltin Lopez, senior, Harlingen High School and a member of the winning team. "It's a real sense of achievement and it inspires the younger kids who stop by and see us working."

Project WAVE is one of six sustainable, student-led entries to win a share of $50,000 in Ford challenge grants. Winning projects were selected by a panel of Ford reviewers with 1st place awarded $20,000, 2nd place $10,000, and 3rd place teams receiving $5,000 to implement their community-focused solutions.

The Ford STEAM High School Community Challenge enhances the efforts of Ford NGL and Ford's Corporate STEAM Council, which urges students to consider a technical education to secure good jobs, meet growing business demands and help Ford develop a pipeline of skilled technical talent. A signature program of Ford Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, Ford NGL is transforming high school education and giving students opportunities to learn by doing in fields, such as engineering and manufacturing.

"It's an amazing feeling," said McClain, about winning the challenge. "Ford took notice of what we're doing. You guys believe in us and that motivates us."

Stay tuned. The program is expected to grow over time and may give a second look to the original goal of navigating oceans around the world.

Three students aboard tilting sailboat in pool Students launching Worldwide Automated Vessel Exploration craft Project WAVE students adjust sailboat mast Carrying sailboat to launch in pool Renovated, automated sailboat Arlette McClain, senior, Harlingen High School answering students' questions about Project WAVE Harlingen High School installing sealed battery into sailboat Early College High School students planning sailboat modifications Project WAVE (Worldwide Automated Vessel Exploration) team