Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Davis sisters shine in national science competition

Sisters Tess, 8, and Lyla, 5, Boutin explain their "Flying Photocatalytic Pollution Frog," which won the regional division of their age group of the ExploraVision science competition. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

From page A8 | April 09, 2013 |

Two young Davis students with a passion for the environment are among 24 teams nationwide advancing to the finals of the world’s largest K-12 science and technology competition.

Tess Boutin, a third-grader at Davis School for Independent Study, and her sister Lyla, a kindergartner at Peregrine School, invented the “Flying Photocatalytic Pollution Frog,” which could eat airplane pollution much like a frog eats insects. For their innovative project, they are one of six teams in the K-3 age group and 24 overall to be named regional winners in the Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision science competition.

The girls were honored in a ceremony at DSIS in March and now await word on whether they will earn a trip to Washington, D.C., in June. Later this month, they’ll meet with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who invited the girls to his office so he could learn more about their idea.

Since its inception in 1992, the ExploraVision competition asks students to imagine ideas for future technologies that could exist in 20 years. Past winners have envisioned technologies ranging from a self-cleaning toilet to a new method of treating diabetes.

Students compete in one of four grade-level divisions: K-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12.

Tess and Lyla began working on their entry last fall, with their mom, Kristen Olotka, serving as a mentor and DSIS teacher Cathy Scarr as coach.

They decided to focus on a technology that would deal with air pollution, Tess said, “because we were concerned about (it) contributing to global warming and health problems.”

The sisters envisioned a device that would attach to an airplane engine and spray photocatalytic materials behind it. Those materials would then interact with sunlight and help to decompose harmful pollutants in the atmosphere, scrubbing the air clean.

At first, Tess said, they imagined the device operating similar to a vacuum, but decided that would be too complex and might actually hinder the airplane’s thrust.

“Lyla came up with the idea of a frog,” Tess said.

“It would eat pollution like a frog eats insects,” Lyla explained.

They actually constructed a large model demonstrating how the pollution frog would work, then built a smaller version that they brought to the DSIS ceremony in March.

For their invention to actually hit the market, breakthroughs would have to occur, Tess said. Those would include someone building the sprayers and filters needed, as well as figuring out how to compensate for things like humidity and wind during flight. But the benefits would be worth the effort, the girls said.

Those benefits include cleaning pollution from the atmosphere, at a relatively low cost, while keeping planes cleaner.

“I hope for your generation and all future generations, the flying pollution frog becomes a flying success,” Toshiba’s Jeff Griffen told the girls at the ceremony.

Added Superintendent Winfred Roberson: “I am so proud of you.

“What an example of STEM education,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “I think you ladies have a wonderful (future) ahead of you.”

The ceremony was a culmination of lots of hard work, with Lyla taking on much of the diagramming and building and Tess helping with all of that as well as doing much of the writing involved.

But there is still work ahead for the young sisters.

For the national judging, the girls had to put together a video and website explaining their project. They will find out at the end of April if they are one of two teams in their age group who will receive all-expenses-paid trips to the nation’s capital. There, they would experience a gala awards weekend complete with a visit to Capitol Hill, a science showcase and sightseeing.

Just knowing they were in the running for that was excitement enough.

When their mom told them they were regional winners, Lyla began doing backflips on the couch, Tess said.

“Lyla’s reaction was a bit overstated,” she explained. “I was a bit understated.”

If Tess was understated, it may well be because of all the successes she’s had in recent years.

All of 8 years old, she has already had poetry published in an anthology of Davis poetry as well as in Spider magazine and has even done her share of public speaking.

Her abiding interest in saving the environment has prompted her to write a letter to the Davis City Council urging a ban on plastic bags. That letter led to subsequent appearances and speeches before not just the City Council, but also the Natural Resources Commission in Davis as well as the California Public Interest Research Group.

“I talked about how they should ban plastic bags because they are bad for the environment,” Tess said at the time.

Soon, she will learn if her environmental activism will land her on the national stage.

Learn more about the ExploraVision competition at

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy



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