The annual Caring for the Kenai contest gained one sponsor when Agrium Inc. bought the Unocal fertilizer plant in Nikiski. Now it could gain more.
The opportunity stems from the effort to recognize more than just the 12 contest finalists, said Denise Newbould, environment, health and safety superintendent for Agrium Kenai Nitrogen Opera-tions.
Each year, nearly 600 students from high schools across the Kenai Peninsula submitted entries, she told the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Nov. 7. Prizes range from a $1,500 savings bond for first place to $100 savings bonds for seventh- through 12th-place winners.
However, Newbould said, there are many more great ideas. So, last spring, teachers suggested organizing a science fair where all the entries would be displayed. That opens the door to additional sponsors.
"Other business members of the community (may) have a particular interest they might like to sponsor," she said. "Maybe somebody ... would give a $250 award to an idea that focuses on a recycling idea. ... If you want to participate in that, recognize a student with an idea in a particular category ... you can do that."
Companies often see periods of transition as opportunities to shed projects that lack merit, Newbould said, and Agrium has been considering how to streamline the Nikiski fertilizer plant.
"But in the case of Caring for the Kenai, instead, it was more of, 'No, I'll take that.' 'No, I'll take that,'" she said. "Unocal didn't want to give it up, and Agrium didn't want to give it up because even though the name has changed, it's still the same people."
The two companies finally decided to sponsor the contest together.
Newbould said organizers recognize the contest would not succeed if teachers did not assign it. Students would never make the time to do the work. Cook Inlet Academy assigns it every other year, she said, and Seward, Nikiski and Soldotna high schools have participated yearly. Skyview and Homer high schools participated until their teaching staffs changed, she said. She expects both to rejoin the contest now.
"Kenai High School, to our disappointment, has never assigned the contest," she said. "We think they might this year. The principal got behind it and said, 'Thou shalt.' They really like the program and wanted to see their school interested.
"For us, we've got so many employees who live in Kenai who have kids that go to Kenai High School that we've always wanted to see Kenai get on board."
Newbould said Agrium and Unocal want to recognize the time and money borough schools devote to the contest.
"We're all sensitive to the fact that the budget for the schools has been cut and cut and cut," she said.
Schools have trouble maintaining programs without money.
"So this year, we said, in addition to the savings bonds that will be going to the students, we'll also be giving money to the schools," she said.
The school that produces the first-place winner will win $3,000 to be spent on science programs. The school with the largest percentage of its science students entering the contest will win $2,000 to be spent on science programs. However, only schools with at least 50 science students will be eligible for the $2,000 prize.
The contest challenges high school students to consider what they can do, create, invent or improve to better care for the environment of the Kenai Peninsula. Students must identify not just the solution, but also the problem, Newbould said.
"We don't want them to sit in a room and think of it by themselves. We want them to be out talking to people and brainstorming," she said.
Last year's first-place winner, Pehr Hartvigson of Soldotna High School, devised a filter to remove pollutants from the cooling water and exhaust discharged from outboard motors.
Last year's fourth-place winner, Nick Horn of Soldotna High School, proposed extending the tax credit offered for habitat protection projects along the Kenai River to projects on the Anchor, Ninilchik and Kasilof rivers. The borough assembly added more rivers and passed Horn's idea into law.
"It really shows that one person can make a difference," Newbould said.
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