The road to the White House isn’t easy — even if you do happen to have an amazing water-purifying bicycle.
But thanks to the hard work of many at Northeast High School, and the support of community businesses ranging from a car dealership to a bagel shop, two students from the Oakland Park school became science celebrities this week. Not only did Kiona Elliott and Payton Kaar appear at the annual White House Science Fair, but their invention — inspired by unsanitary water conditions in Haiti — was a highlight of national media coverage after President Obama accepted their bold invitation to actually hop aboard and start pedaling.
In full suit-and-tie on Monday, Obama powered the machine for about a minute and a half, while the White House press corps snapped photos furiously.
“Well, this is outstanding,” Obama told the two girls, noting how the machine could one day be used in “a lot” of countries. “I’m so proud of you ... keep it up.”
On Tuesday, the recognition continued, as Broward School Board members paid tribute to Northeast, and took turns sharing congratulatory hugs with Elliott and Kaar.
“I feel like a proud father,” Northeast Principal Jonathan Williams said. “They didn’t seek out to meet the President. They went on a journey to do something good for other people, and as a result they met the President.”
The young pair’s success seems destined to continue (both were recently awarded full-tuition scholarships for college), but turning their invention from simple idea to reality required a massive group effort that began roughly two years ago.
First, Elliott and Kaar were joined by a dozen other science-focused Northeast students who met regularly after school, trying to come up with a group project. Their teacher, Randa Flinn, wanted Northeast to enter the Lemelson-MIT Program, which grants up to $10,000 for students to build a proposed invention, provided they submit an impressive enough application.
But what to create?
As the group brainstormed, another student — who would eventually join the invention team — just happened to be in class making up an assignment she missed while on a missionary trip to Haiti. When that student spoke about the country’s lack of clean water, a lightning bolt of inspiration struck the classroom.
“Our idea, our invention, was built from that,” Elliott said.
Eventually, the school won the large Lemelson-MIT grant, and traveled to Cambridge, Mass., last year to show off their completed work, though doing so required raising more than $14,000 in travel expenses that the grant didn’t cover. Northeast found a wealth of community support: Pompano Ford Lincoln, businessman Wayne Huizenga, and Oakland Park’s firefighters were among the many groups that donated.
That Lemelson-MIT appearance led to this year’s White House Science Fair, which invites a select few participants from the nation’s highest-profile science competitions.
Most team members have by now graduated, but both Elliott and Kaar are still at Northeast, and so became the lucky team representatives to hobnob with VIPs in the White House Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.
In addition to meeting the President that day, the pair also spoke with Bill Nye the Science Guy, as well as actor Kal Penn, host of the upcoming Discovery Channel series The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.
Penn, who is more widely known for playing the character Kumar Patel in the Harold and Kumar comedy films, told the students he has friends at a small nonprofit who might be able to use Northeast’s machine, and he would look into it.
The students’ roughly 225-pound contraption uses a bicycle to power a battery, which in turn powers a water pump that guides contaminated bacteria-filled water through a three-step filtration process. The device is collapsible, and its inventors eventually hope to use the bicycle to transport it to and fro, though that design detail is still a work in progress.
Ozone is a key ingredient in the water cleansing, thanks in part to the suggestions of Jeff Kirsch, owner of Boston Bagel Cafe. The bagel shop is located down the street from Northeast, and one night when the students were working late on the project, they ordered delivery. Kirsch dropped off the food and was so fascinated by what he saw that he began showing up regularly for meetings.
Elliott is set to attend the University of Florida next year, but Kaar still has one more year of high school to go, and she plans to work on perfecting the invention, with a focus on improved water-quality testing. Flinn, who is now in her 30th year of teaching, will still be on hand to help her.
“We’re going to get lake water, and puddle water,” Flinn said. “See how dirty water can be, and we can still clean it.”