Last winter, I had the honor of meeting the Mechanical Masterminds.
The team of 10- to 13-year-old Hilliard elementary schoolers were seeking a problem to solve that would impact an entire city.
The objective was the theme of this year's FIRST Lego League City Shapers competition.
After interviewing city and business leaders, students noticed a common thread interlaced into all of the conversations: waste management.
Specifically, complex rules led to difficulty identifying how to properly recycle the many types of material used in packaging.
The students agreed this would be the subject of their project, and they worked tirelessly to find a solution. Team coach Ivan Tornes estimated the group spent about 150 hours, starting Aug. 1, researching and developing an app to help people recycle.
On Dec. 7, team members traveled to Ohio State University to compete at regionals. They unveiled their Smart Waste app, which shows consumers how to properly dispose of packaging by using the same barcodes used during checkout.
The brilliance of this method cannot be understated. Unsure if aseptic packaging is recyclable? Me, too -- so just scan the barcode! Don't know what to do with a plastic clamshell? Just scan the barcode!
In addition to the packaging database, the app includes a feature that allows the user to type in materials that do not have a barcode. It suggests options for community collections for Styrofoam, electronics and shredding.
The result was unanimous: The Mechanical Masterminds won the champions award and advanced to the next level in the competition.
In January, the team continued its ascent and made it through a difficult district competition on its way to a berth in the state championship, where 600 teams were narrowed to 60.
Although students missed out on what would have been the team's first national appearance, they walked away making their parents, their coach and their community proud -- and more sustainable.
As a participating member of one of the initial meetings, I was invited to sit through a practice run before the state competition in February. I was moved by the effort, the ingenuity and the dedication this team showed with its project.
The app brings clarity to a confusing system of recyclable materials. It could truly be something that is used in everyday life, by everyone.
The team plans to continue to develop the app and hopes to harness the power of end users to build out the database even further.
Students also have considered using image recognition software for materials without barcodes.
Our future is in good hands with these young leaders: Vanessa Betz, 12; Ella Tornes, 11; Josh Lance, 12; Zach Lance, 10; and Dylan Tornes, 13.
After the competition, I sat down with Ivan Tornes and asked him what was memorable about the experience. He said it was the collaboration of the students.
"Everyone was heard and had a voice," he said.
I hope their message resonates with you on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Geoff Dew is recreation supervisor for the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department. The Eye on the Environment column is submitted by the Hilliard Environmental Sustainability Commission.