The Mechanically Operated Litter Eliminator will take a team of four local students to Orlando this week for a national competition.

The Mechanically Operated Litter Eliminator will take a team of four local students to Orlando this week for a national competition.

The team, coached by parent Haruna Cofer, is one of eight finalists nationwide that advanced to the competition through the Christopher Columbus Awards.

Team members are Gahanna East seventh-graders Savannah Cofer and Wayne Stegner, eighth-grader Mackenzie Wilson and Columbus Academy seventh-grader Varun Vallabhaneni.

The Christopher Columbus Awards are part of a national program that encourages science, technology, engineering and math among middle school students.

The program challenges students to work in teams of three or four, with an adult coach, to identify a problem in their community and apply a scientific method to create an innovative solution to that problem.

"The twist is that it has to be an invention that helps the community in some way," coach Cofer said. "The kids focused on the problem of the trash collection system that hasn't changed a lot in 40 to 50 years. They came up with a more fuel-efficient, cleaner, underground trash collection system."

The team invented a specialized box that would be shared by neighbors for trash, she said, and they wouldn't have to wait for trash pick-up day.

"An underground robot would pick it up and take it to a transfer station," Cofer said. "The robot would go from neighborhoods to the transfer station. The way the children envision it, you'd have a magnetic charge card that only charges for the amount you throw away. That would encourage you to compost and recycle, and you only pay for what you throw away."

A separate bin would be available for recyclables.

"This would be expensive," Cofer said. "It's a cool idea."

As part of their research, the team talked to Gahanna city engineer Karl Wetherholt and to representatives from the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio.

"The idea is to encourage kids to go into science and engineering," Cofer said.

The team's entry was one of 30 semifinalists chosen from entries across the nation before being selected as one of eight finalist teams to compete June 19 to 23 in Florida.

As a finalist, the team won an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World to attend National Championship Week. While there, the students will compete for savings bonds, a $25,000 Columbus Foundation community grant and a $200 development grant to further refine their idea.