MVRHS reached state finals in national problem-solving competition

Olivia Wolff and Julia Felix mix the pellet components. — Natalie Munn

The MVironment Club at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is at work on a project that was selected as one of five state finalists in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition. In this nationwide contest, students were asked to address a challenge in their community by applying STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and design, and mathematics.

Dr. Paul Nettle Middle School in Haverhill won the state competition, but the MVironment Club project will continue, with the students aiming to develop a way to reduce nitrogen in Island ponds and estuaries. The students work with harvested phragmites, a nitrogen-consuming reed that flourishes around ponds with high levels of nitrogen, and students have come up with ways to make the phragmite waste into pellets to use in stoves for heat. Student also have explored ways to install sensors in the ponds to measure water quality.

The group, which focuses on environmental issues, works in partnership with a study spearheaded by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) special projects manager Emma Green Beach and Rick Karney, founder of MVSG. Funded by a grant, the group wants to determine if it is feasible to reduce nitrogen levels through the regular harvest of phragmites.

“We’re using phragmites because they’re invasive, we have a lot of them, and they absorb nitrogen out of the water,” Elizabeth O’Brien, a junior student in the club, told The Times.

The group has been working at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven. The farm is owned by Island Grown Initiative, an organization that works toward sustainable local food systems. The project tries to find ways to make pellets, use them as biofuel to heat the farm’s greenhouse, and then use the ash as a fertilizer.

Students have explored different combinations of materials to make the pellets; they have used shredded phragmite, cardboard, and sawdust. They’ve designed molds for the pellets on computers and then used three-dimensional printers to construct the molds.

“It’s the bringing together of a lot of different types of skill sets, so it’s quite moving to work with kids who can do stuff like that,” Natalie Munn, chemistry teacher and co-advisor of MVironment Club, said. Chemistry teacher Louis Hall is the other co-advisor, and Dana Munn, Ms. Munn’s husband, is the technology consultant for the group.

The prize was a $25,000 grant for the school to use for technology, and a chance to go to the national finals. But Brahmin Thurber-Carbone, one of the senior students in the club, told The Times that the project’s importance goes beyond beyond the competition: It’s about finding ways to help solve a problem in the community.

“For me, it’s not about winning. It’s about fun and helping the community, too,” he said. “And making sure the ponds aren’t gone in the future.”