UMC Helps Guide Local Students to Victory

University Mechanical Contractors’ Jakob Sjoberg and John MacPherson are used to making presentations on behalf of UMC’s Environmental Water Treatment Group, but the one they made in March to a rapt group of scientists in Mukilteo was arguably one of the most crucial.

A lot was on the line. The scientists had just taken first place in a regional competition for a proprietary stormwater filtration system they had built, and they were seeking input from Sjoberg and MacPherson as they headed to the state tournament. The scientists were hoping to fine-tune their invention by adding a certain material to their contraption that would cleanse the water beyond levels they had already achieved.

Sjoberg and MacPherson were ready and willing to help. They just had to wait until the fourth graders were out of school for the day.

Tournament Success

The young scientists were a group of seven girls from Columbia Elementary School in Mukilteo and they comprised a team participating in the Destination Imagination program. Destination Imagination is a global, non-profit organization that seeks to encourage creativity and innovation through a series of programs and competitions. Columbia Elementary has participated in Destination Imagination for three years, with eight teams and a total of 65 students involved this year.

The team of fourth graders, the Athena Sisters, had chosen to develop a rain garden-type filter system to fulfill part of the requirements in the competition’s “Scientific: Going to Extremes” category. The girls’ invention — a functional stormwater filter made from a combination of a sponge, charcoal, sand, soil and a plant — had won a first place award at the regional tournament in Lake Stevens in early March. They would be moving on to the state competition in Wenatchee in a few weeks, but they weren’t completely satisfied with their efforts. While the water that passed through their filter tested clean enough for sea life, it was still a bit murky.

Word of the Athena Sisters’ accomplishment made its way to UMC, and an offer was made by Sjoberg and MacPherson to come share their expertise with the team. Since Destination Imagination competitors have the option to fine tune their presentations between tournaments, the girls jumped at the opportunity.

“This wasn’t just playtime for these girls,” said Heather Carlson, the co-coordinator (with Christina Bandaragoda) of Columbia Elementary’s Destination Imagination program and the co-manager (along with LuAnne Warner) of the Athena Sisters team. “They were very serious about it.”

Sjoberg and MacPherson met with the girls at the end of a school day shortly after their regional tournament success and introduced them to chitosan — a material using processed crab shells that, when mixed with water, binds to contaminants. They explained how chitosan is used in filtering systems at industrial sites to clean contaminated stormwater runoff.

The UMC scientists left some chitosan with the girls, who immediately got to work. The group tried a number of ways to incorporate the material into their existing filter, eventually attaching the chitosan to the bottom of the contraption with cheesecloth. The water came out crystal clear. Judges at the state tournament were impressed. Athena Sisters placed third out of 11 teams and won the prestigious Da Vinci Award for Outstanding Creativity.

“This group of girls never stopped pushing the science and really wanted to create something that would be a viable solution to pollution,” said Carlson.

Chitosan is made by grinding crab and other crustacean shells, then processing the ground shells with acid and alkali treatments to remove calcium and protein. The resulting chitosan is a flakey material that can be used in the dry form or as a liquid dissolved in dilute vinegar. When the chitosan is added to a treatment system, the-positively-charged chitosan binds with-the negatively-charged contaminants. This process, known as coagulation, builds the contaminant density to the point where the impurities can be gravity settled and/or filtered.

University Mechanical Contractors’ Environmental Water Treatment Group designs and fabricates treatment systems to treat stormwater on industrial sites, construction sites, log sort yards and for oil and gas process water. One of its current projects is a stormwater treatment system at a log sort yard in Oregon. The project is currently in the permitting stage and the 800 gallon per minute treatment system is expected to be installed this year. It combines several types of treatment chemistry, including chitosan, to remove contaminants such as sediment, heavy metals, oil and grease and organics from the water.

Community Involvement

UMC’s involvement in the Destination Imagination program isn’t the first time the mechanical engineering firm has contributed its brain power to help area youth. Some employees, like engineer Peter Sloane, is a participant in the ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering) Mentor Program, a national program that pairs practicing professionals with high school students interested in careers in architecture, engineering and construction. Student/mentor teams meet throughout the school year to complete a mock design project. The 15-week program culminates in a final presentation to families, teachers, prospective mentors and affiliate administrators.

“It’s great to see the creative ideas the students come up with,” said Sloane, who has participated in the ACE program for four years. “Also, more and more of the students are interested in sustainability, and it’s fun working with them to make the building they’re designing more ‘green.’”

On the Destination Imagination project with the Athena Sisters, Sjoberg was impressed with the students’ tenacity and interest in the science of stormwater treatment.

“What the students had already designed was a pretty neat solution,” said Sjoberg. “We just offered the chitosan component and they took it from there.”