Camas teens tackle toxic algae

Seventh-graders earn spot at national STEM competition, $5K science grant with 'algaegator' invention

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Camas middle-schoolers Rafa Lavagnino, 13, (left) and Tenzin Kelsang, 13, test their mobile, algae-filtering "algaegator" invention at Camas' Lacamas Lake in the spring of 2021. The seventh-graders' work recently earned them a spot in a national STEM competition sponsored by the United States Army and the National Science Teaching Association, as well as a $5,000 grant to improve the toxic-algae filtration device. (Contributed photo courtesy of Ayn Lavagnino)

Intent on competing in a science competition that could win their team up to $9,000 in savings bonds, the two Camas middle school students were looking for a local problem in need of a solution.

The teens didn’t have to look far.

The problem, said Odyssey Middle School seventh-grader Rafa Lavagnino, 13, was right there, in the middle of their hometown, threatening to ruin one of their favorite outdoor meeting spots.

The solution? Getting rid of the toxic blue-green algae in Camas’ Lacamas Lake.

Lavagnino and his friend, Tenzin Kelsang, 13, a seventh-grader at Skyridge Middle School, grew up swimming and paddleboarding in Lacamas Lake. The lake was where they’d hang out with friends during the summer months.

Recently, however, the students had noticed something amiss at the lake: toxic algal blooms, which can sicken humans and kill pets, had gone from rare events to near-constant disruptions.

“One year, the lake was closed the entire summer, pretty much,” Lavagnino said. “There were only a few times when it was open.”

Lavagnino and Kelsang had been hoping to enter the 19th annual eCYBERMISSION competition, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program sponsored by the United States Army and the National Science Teaching Association.

To enter, the middle school students had to develop a solution to a real-world problem in their local community. Their solution? Invent a mobile device that could help clean toxic algal blooms at Lacamas Lake.

Soon, the Camas teens realized their invention might have much farther-reaching appeal.

“We thought a really local problem would be this algae problem,” Lavagnino said, “but we started to figure out it’s literally everywhere.”

Coming up with a solution to the toxic algal blooms was never going to be an easy proposal, but the COVID-19 pandemic put an extra kink into the two young inventors’ plans.

“It took us about a year … and it was mostly remote at the beginning,” Kelsang said.

The students wanted to invent a mobile algae filtration system that could help clean Lacamas Lake. They experimented with filters and pumps — using sawdust and water solutions to test the filtration capabilities of cheesecloth material and figuring out which types of pumps would be just the right weight to float along the lake.

Toward the end of the project, the students were able to meet in-person to test their prototypes at the lake, and to test other components of the mobile algae filtration system they called an “Algaegator.”

“We tried first with amphibious vehicles but they couldn’t push it,” Lavagnino said. “So then we connected it to a tow rope with a kayak and that worked pretty well.”

The Algaegator filters the algae when it is still at levels considered safe for humans to swim and recreate in the lake, the students explained.

In their virtual presentations for the eCYBERMISSION competition, the students said their prototype could be scaled up to help clean algal blooms in larger lakes.

The Camas students presented their work to the competition judges in April. In early May, they discovered they’d been named the regional finalists for the West Region, beating out competitors from 10 other states in the Western U.S., and winning a $5,000 grant to improve their prototype.

“The grant will help us make it sturdier, so if it gets hit by a boat or a branch it won’t break down or crumble,” Kelsang said.

The students will now advance to the national eCYBERMISSION competition, which takes place virtually June 21-25.

“The eCYBERMISSION competition is an amazing showcase of the creativity and passion of so many extraordinary students from across the country,” said Elizabeth Allan, president of the National Science Teaching Association.

Christina Weber, with the U.S. Army Educational Outreach Program, called the young competitors — all in grades six through nine — “the next generation of thought leaders in science and technology.”

“It’s always exciting to see so many talented students participate in our competitions, summer enrichment activities, and apprenticeship programs, and to watch them develop as they progress from one program to the next,” Weber said.

As one of just 20 national finalist teams chosen to compete in the next round of the STEM competition, the Camas “Algaegators” each received $2,000 in savings bonds separate from the $5,000 STEM-in-Action grant. The students will have a chance to earn more money in the national competition in June.

Regardless of the outcome of the national competition, Kelsang and Lavignino plan to share their hard work with the rest of the world.

“We want to make this an open-source design so anyone can use it,” Kelsang said.

Kelsang and Lavagnino said they might be interested in working with the four-person teams the competition normally requires during non-COVID years.

“It would be interesting to do this again with more people,” Lavagnino said.