- - Thursday, March 16, 2017

A group of Ghanaian and D.C. high school students has developed a water filtration system using natural resources that is designed to help people in communities with poor access to drinkable water.

They are one of three U.S.-Ghanaian teams competing in the inaugural World Smarts STEM Challenge, an initiative that pairs high school students and teachers in the U.S. and Ghana to develop science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) solutions for environmental problems in their communities.

The students met in person for the first time Thursday at McKinley Technology High School in Northeast after four months of collaboration in their respective countries through email and videoconference calls.

Roberta Quansah, a student at Winneba Senior High School in Winneba, Ghana, said she and her partners in the U.S. were not deterred by the 5,000-mile distance or the six-hour time difference between them.

Together, the students named their team “McKwiny” — a combination of McKinley and Winneba.

“We’re excited and a bit nervous,” Roberta said. “But mostly excited.”

Megan Richardson, a junior at McKinley, said the idea for the group’s project stemmed from a shortage of clean water near her teammates’ school in Winneba.

“They had a lagoon near their school, and when their water wasn’t working, everyone went there to get water,” Megan said. “It was already a real problem we got to work on.”

More than 250 other D.C.-area and Ghanaian students participated in the contest, which is organized by IREX, an international education advocacy group, and funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York.

Working with teachers, the students were tasked with brainstorming, building and testing devices that either help create renewable energy or eliminate pollution.

Now in its second year, the challenge is meant to foster interest in STEM careers among high school students and support cross-cultural collaboration, said Rebecca Meszaros, associate vice president at IREX.

“STEM problems are going to be solved on a global platform,” she said. “They don’t know borders. For example, Zika, Ebola and digital security — these are all issues that will be worked on internationally.”

In the U.S., 16 percent of high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM-related careers, Ms. Meszaros said.

She said the program also aims to encourage girls, who are underrepresented in STEM fields, to study science and technology subjects in college.

“We wanted to ensure there was a strong gender balance,” Ms. Meszaros said. “You’ll see in the makeup of these teams, it’s 50/50, boys and girls. We want to make sure girl students are encouraged to continue on in the STEM fields too.”

Five STEM industry professionals will serve as judges at Saturday’s showcase, where students will present final versions of their concepts and prototypes.

The winning team will be awarded up to $10,000 and the opportunity to further develop, test and market their idea to investors and corporate partners with support from IREX.

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