CENTER — Center High School sophomore Aaliyah Garcia walked away with a bronze medal (third place) from the International Sustainable World Engineering Energy Environment Project Olympiad (ISWEEEP) held in Houston, Texas recently.
Over 60 countries from around the world were represented at the competition, presenting over 4,000 projects in total. The “international science fair” is one of the largest in the world and provides students with an opportunity to win over $100,000 in awards and scholarships.
Garcia participated earlier this year in the San Luis Valley Regional Science Fair and State competition. At the regional science fair she won a first place in chemistry, five other awards and $100 in prize money. She also won a $9,000 scholarship to Adams State University.
At state competition in Fort Collins, Garcia won an honorable mention in chemistry and two awards for her contributions as an extraordinary female scientist. She also won a ticket to compete at I-SWEEP and $350 in prize money.
“I’m saving the money for college,” she said with a slow smile, with a little here and there for some shopping excursions.
Garcia’s project was inspired by her father’s 20-year career as a volunteer fireman. Horrified by the deaths of wildland firefighters in Yarnell, Arizona in 2013, Garcia decided to try and develop a material that would better shield firefighters from wildland and other fires.
With the help of her dad, Garcia began researching materials last year that would best protect firefighters from intense heat and burns. Currently firefighters use a special aluminum sheeting for protection. Garcia was looking for a thermal barrier that would better protect from the heat and found it in something called aero-gel, used to insulate welding gloves. The thin material will resist 2,000-degree heat for up to a minute before beginning to warm up.
Garcia’s science teacher, John Whitinger, said what firefighters are using now is “pretty much made out of aluminum foil” and just deflects heat to protect the lungs from searing. Out of 1,100 deployments using the current aluminum sheeting, 25 died, 825 suffered burns and 125 were not burned. Garcia hopes to substantially increase these odds by developing a material to better shield firefighters.
Garcia will continue to test the material in her junior and senior years and plans to realize her goal before graduation. She hopes to return to I-SWEEP with her project and also compete in another prestigious competition, the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Next month she will meet with the San Luis Board of Firefighters. Center Fire Department already has provided her with headgear and a bunker jacket for the project.
When she tests the sheeting she hopes to develop, Whitinger said Garcia would probably use a special oven at the firehouse in Antonito, where wildland fire testing is conducted. Other tests on materials have been conducted in the classroom science lab, he said.
Whitinger commended Center Schools for their ongoing support and paying for plane tickets to Houston for the competition. I-SWEEP paid for their eight-day stay at the Hilton America. This included field trips and an unexpected visit with a former Center teacher, now education director for Houston’s Space Center.
Daniel Newmyer surprised Whitinger and Garcia by showing up at the competition and introducing himself. He taught science at Center Schools for several years and his wife was the band director there. Whitinger said before they left, Newmyer gave them a personal tour of the center and a gift of commemorative coins.
“I don’t know how we would have gone to the competition without Center School’s help,” Whitinger said. Garcia pledged to continue her important project and also thanked her dad, her teachers and school administration for their support.