Kaitlyn Ernst, 14, is forging a new path in scientific research with her science fair project this year. A rising freshman at Laurel School, Kaitlyn presented her project on capturing heat energy from a compost pile to make energy, leaving a net zero impact on the environment. This project received high scores at the local level, which led her to districts. Kaitlyn, of Hunting Valley, advanced to states and is waiting to hear if she will qualify for the Broadcom MASTERS, the national science fair this fall in Washington, D.C.
University School hosted Science Day in January, an annual science fair where students from other schools are invited to compete. Kaitlyn conducted research for her project starting in September but did not build it until December. She started with a compost pile that produces heat as a byproduct when food decomposes.
“I came upon the idea because climate change has always really concerned me,” she said. “I decided that I would want to create something with no environmental impact.”
Kaitlyn captured the heat from the compost pile and circulated room temperature water through polyurethane tubing. The water funneled into an aluminum pan with Peltier cells. Five cells powered the water pump and 15 cells powered the outsource of electricity. A Peltier plate, she said, creates an electrical charge based on a temperature difference. Kaitlyn said that this project created 6.65 volts, which powered an LED light.
“My main goal was being able to do something that the average person could do, so I wanted to make sure I had materials that I could use time and time again and that were very low cost,” Kaitlyn said. She ordered the items for her project online for less than $100.
At the district level, Kaitlyn won three sponsored awards for her work, the most that any individual competitor won, according to Laurel School spokeswoman Sarah Miller. Kaitlyn also won the Governors Award, which is a $1,000 scholarship to any Ohio college. She was the only middle school student to win this award.
“She’s got this great problem solving mindset about how to approach the situation as a whole,” said Jessie Sun, director of STEAM Engagement and upper school science teacher at Laurel.
Dr. Sun said that Kaitlyn built out her project entirely by herself, which she applauded because it required learning a lot of new skills. For example, Kaitlyn said that she learned the basics of electrical engineering and thermodynamics to do the wiring for the project by herself. Kaitlyn also worked with Brian Carpenter, an upper school physics teacher, to pin down the details of the project during the early planning stages.
The project can be submitted once, Dr. Sun explained, and only the presentation can change as a student advances through the district, state and national science fair competition. She said that all projects come with a tri-fold board and a notebook with a written report, data and graphs. Kaitlyn also submitted many photos of her work. Dr. Sun said that she began working with Kaitlyn after she built the project to determine the best way to present it to the judges and conduct practice interviews for the science fair.
“They can change their thinking and their answers based on the information they get from judges and input from the people holding the fair,” she said.
Kaitlyn already had a clear understanding of the results of her project, so Dr. Sun helped her prepare for the science fair and consider follow-up questions that the judges could ask. Dr. Sun has also served as a judge at the district science fair and at the Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair.
Kaitlyn said that it is rewarding to see her hard work pay off with the recognition her project has received.
“I’m a very hands-on person and I just want to get to building,” she said. “I had to stay back and research a lot, which was maybe against what I wanted to do. But it helped a lot, and through this long process it definitely paid off.”