Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Freshman Victoria Giles from Soldotna Prep demonstrates her project that converts organic matter into energy before a panel of judges for this year's Caring for the Kenai oral presentations Thursday, April 21, 2016 at Kenai Central High School in Kenai, Alaska. From more than 300 applicants, 12 students were chosen to present their projects in a final round, after which six runners up won fixed prizes and another six won prizes varying from $550-$1,600.

Kids change Kenai one idea at a time

Marguerite and Evangeline Cox drew excited gasps from the crowd as they brought their small, fluffy dog onstage to help demonstrate animal oxygen masks.

The Nikiski Middle-High Schools seniors, and cousins, were finalists presenting their projects for this year’s Caring for the Kenai competition in a final round Thursday at Kenai Central High School. Now in its 26th year, the event attempts to raise awareness for and foster interest in environmental and public safety needs on the Kenai Peninsula. Sponsored by Tesoro and several other community partners and run through the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, it awarded about $8,000 in prize money to the top 12 ideas and $20,000 in grants to the schools the ideas came from this year.

As eight judges, including from Kenai Peninsula School District Superintendant Sean Dusek and last year’s competition winner Keira Stroh, looked on, 12 finalists presented their projects, some with demonstrations. They competed for cash prizes, with six runners-up winning a fixed amount and the other six competing for places and prizes ranging from $550-$1,600.

Marguerite and Evangeline Cox snagged the first place title and prize for their idea, “Breath for Pets.” The project involves putting together kits with oxygen masks for pets and instructions so firefighters or homeowners can use them during a fire to save a pet’s life if necessary. The win elicited tears from Evangeline, she said.

“I was just so shocked because we have been working on this for years,” Marguerite said.

The students raised money and found sponsors to fund the assembly of the kits, which they are trying to get out into more fire departments and homes. They have already spoken with Central Emergency Services Chief Roy Browning, and said his department wants five of the kits. Firefighting departments in Nikiski, Kenai and Soldotna have the kits and can use them when responding to a house with pets in it, they said.

“We chose to do this because we love animals, we’re very passionate about animals, and we’re very passionate about helping our community,” Marguerite said.

The girls have been working on the idea for about two years, as it started as a service project and morphed into their Caring for the Kenai entry. Watching them come all this way has been emotional, said Judith Cox.

“I am so proud, so proud of them,” she said. “They worked really hard, a lot of fundraising, bake sales, more bake sales … just to make money because they don’t charge fire departments. These are free.”

Other projects rewarded Thursday include a plan by Kenai Central High School freshman Hunter Hanson to help get more accurate moose counts by using sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as well as Homer High School junior Rowan Biessel’s idea to put algae photobioreactors on the exhaust stacks of buildings to filter out carbon dioxide.

This year’s crop of students and ideas seemed especially impressive to the judges.

“It’s fantastic. It’s my second year judging, and I have an ulterior motive,” said Cameron Hunt, vice president of Tesoro’s Kenai Refinery and a judge. “I’m looking at each one of these as future employees for, you know, five, six years down the road, and this kind of science, technology, engineering (and) mathematics approach is so critical to the Kenai Peninsula economy while we’re in a little bit of a downturn right now.”

More than 300 students from around the district entered the contest this year, according to a release from the event organizers. Students came from Voznesenka, Homer High School, Kenai Central High School, Nikiski Middle-High School, Soldotna High School, Soldotna Prep, Ninilchik High School and Seward High School.


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