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Darlington Middle School students Alyza Johnson and Ashley Wick said the 49 wind turbines dotting the land around their community piqued their interest in a contest where they could construct and test their own smaller versions of the machines.

“I kind of wondered what they did and why they were there,” said Alyza, a seventh-grader.

The students’ enthusiasm and hard work were rewarded as their team took first place in Saturday’s Wisconsin KidWind Challenge — a hands-on student wind turbine design competition for fourth- through twelfth-graders. The competition took place at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, which organized the event, sponsored by Alliant Energy, EDP Renewables North America and Madison Gas & Electric.

Alyza and Ashley, an eighth-grader, were members of the “Breezy Bees” team, along with seventh-graders Aubrey McCarthy and Erica Mylor. Another team from Darlington, the Bladies, took second place. That team was made up of Addison DePauw, Sophie Wiegel and Braelyn Grossen, all seventh-graders, and eighth-grader Catie Blosch.

The two teams qualified for the National KidWind Challenge in Houston on May 20-23.

Student teams designed and constructed small wind turbines that they test in a wind tunnel, and met with a panel of judges to present their design process and demonstrate their contextual knowledge of wind energy. Judges evaluated each team’s wind turbine energy output and design, along with its documentation of the design process and knowledge of wind and renewable energy. Instant challenges presented to the teams accounted for 10 percent of their scores.

Dick Anderson, leader of the Wisconsin KidWind Initiative and a retired shop teacher from Darlington, said the sophistication of the wind turbines in the second annual state contest has advanced since the first year Wisconsin students competed.

“Last year, most of the blades were flat cardboard,” Anderson said. “Then the teams upgraded … to now making airfoil-shaped blades.”

The blades also were constructed by cutting Styrofoam with a hot wire, and the teams reduced the number of blades from six to three, he said. At the same time, the blades are producing more energy.

A third team from Darlington, the High Flying Birds, took third place. A team from New Auburn Middle School and two from Randall Consolidated School also competed at the state level.

The Darlington teams are coached by science teacher Mark Acherman and Sharon Reese, who teaches language arts. Acherman said he likes the chance for students to have another avenue for showing what they can do and exposing them to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Reese said students will forever look at wind turbines differently, and she likes that the contest requires them to present their knowledge to someone else.

“This has changed these kids forever. They have become the teacher,” she said.

Aubrey, of the Breezy Bees, said taking part in the KidWind Challenge has altered her career plans. She used to think she would be a doctor or a nurse like her mom, but now she is considering becoming an environmental engineer, she said.

Seventh-grader Ethan Aird, a member of the High Flying Birds, said his favorite aspect of the KidWind Challenge was building the turbine because he likes hands-on activities.

“You get to work with whole different types of scenarios and (do) problem solving,” said team member Phillip McGowan, also a seventh-grader.

Seventh-grader Josie Meister and eighth-grader Olivia Kleiber also were part of the High Flying Birds team.

Scott Williams, research and education coordinator at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, hopes to attract more teams in the future. He said wind turbine technician is one of the fastest-growing fields.

“There is a big demand for these jobs right now but I don’t think there is enough awareness,” Williams said. “The whole point of this is to really inspire young people to be involved in STEM and also renewable energy as a career opportunity.”

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