Kenai Central High School's Freya Chay spent her spring break in an unlikely location for a first-year student -- mingling with state lawmakers in the halls of the state's rain-soaked capital.
Chay's time there was arguably well spent, though. She's at least $1,500 richer from the experience and can now say she helped to lobby for the inclusion of an amendment to a major piece of legislation that went through this session.
Chay took first place in this year's Caring for the Kenai, an event that challenges regional high school students to come up with an idea or an invention that will create a better environment on the peninsula or improve the area's preparedness for a natural disaster.
Chay pushed to add an amendment to Senate Bill 220, the energy omnibus bill, which allows local governments to exempt residential renewable energy systems from real property taxes.
"Basically if a homeowner added a wind energy system to their property, that value would not be taxed in their annual property tax," Chay said.
Sound a little heady for a high schooler?
Chay chuckled at the suggestion.
She picked up the idea from a resolution approved by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly this past fall.
"My family has always been involved in local government, and it's really important to kind of be watching what's going on," she said. "We are part of the government and we have influence over what's happening. I've always been interested so I decided to take it forward."
Testifying before state lawmakers was a little intimidating though, Chay admitted.
"It was definitely a learning experience," she said, "but they respect that you're young and your idea, and at the same time it's a new idea to them and it's exciting for them to hear from someone my age."
Chay said her main selling point to the Legislature was that the exemption is optional, leaving the final decision to local governments.
While SB 220 awaits Gov. Sean Parnell's signature, Chay is already thinking about the next step, taking the issue back to the assembly.
Caring for the Kenai second-place winner Leif Olson, a first-year student at Nikiski Middle-High, had his 'ahah' moment standing on an ice-covered lake.
Olson earned the $1,000 prize for his natural disaster preparedness wood-burning stove made from recycled coffee cans.
The contraption is small enough to be carried easily in any vehicle.
Olson said he was out ice fishing and wanted to cook his catch, but a fellow angler encouraged him not to make a fire ring on the lake's shore as it might become a permanent fixture there.
Instead Olson pursued the idea of building a small homemade stove.
Not long after, he found himself having to come up with an idea for Caring for the Kenai as part of a class, and perfecting his creation fit the bill.
"I never really thought it would go anywhere," he said. "I was just going to try and get a good grade in the class."
He got a little more than he bargained for on that one.
Olson said he was neither hot nor cold on whether he would keep this flame going by marketing his creation.
"There's a possibility that I might try and sell them. I was thinking if I was to I would do it as kits," he said. "I was thinking about making a paper layout that would show where to cut and drill that you could attach to a can."
For Merrill Sikorski, Caring for the Kenai coordinator, the projects of Olson and Chay exemplified what the challenge is about.
"It shows the broad spectrum and the ways students apply themselves," Sikorski said. "Freya (Chay) was great at moving this through and understanding the politics and Leif (Olson) went out in the garage and put something together."
Other winners in this year's Caring for the Kenai competition included Like Michael, a Soldotna High sophomore in third place, claiming an $800 prize for his curriculum to teach fourth- through eighth-graders about the dangers of northern pike on the peninsula.
Taking fourth-place honors and $650 was Madison Cunningham, of Kenai, who made waterproof disaster preparedness documents from old banners.
Coming in fifth and winning $550 were Kyle Lemmon, Levi Burns and Ian Dukowitz, of River City Academy, who secured funding and permits to install wind generators on city light posts to be installed at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this summer.
In sixth place and winning $400 was Kenny Werth, of SoHi, who found a way to keep Soldotna's settling ponds from freezing and thus preventing toxic runoff into the Kenai River.
In addition to the $6,000 in cash awards for the finalists, this year Tesoro, Chevron and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association awarded $15,000 to the science departments of schools that participated in the competition.
This year SoHi, Nikiski, Ninilchik School, Kenai and River City Academy all used Caring for the Kenai as part of their classroom curriculum. Each school received $500 for participating, with the remainder allocated based on how their students placed.
Other Caring for the Kenai finalists who earned $250 cash each for their oral presentations were Jay Ulen, from SoHi, who proposed replacement of street lights with energy-saving LED bulbs; Andrew Barcus, of Kenai, who investigated bio-fuel production on the Kenai; J.D. Ahlberg, of Kenai, who showed how a smart sponge could work in city drains to eliminate toxic runoffs; Kaitlyn Louthan, of Kenai, who found an eco-valve to reduce water usage in toilets; Cydney Spurgeon, of Nikiksi, who found that using a substance called CMA 40 to de-ice roads will reduce the potential for roadkill moose; and Makenzi Magiera, of Kenai, who plans to replace the school's track by collecting and using recycled material from running shoes.
Dante Petri can be reached at email@example.com.
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