The wind tunnel at GE’s Renewable Energy headquarters in Schenectady was a harsh judge Saturday morning.
One after another, students in the KidWind Challenge put model turbines inside the four-foot-by-four-foot chamber and crossed their fingers.
Sometimes, the turbines worked like a dream, the blades catching the wind and turning into a smooth blur; other times, the kids learned a hard lesson about engineering as gears broke and blades failed.
One of the first teams to test its turbine Saturday was Cloud 9 from the Albany Academy for Girls. With four shrink-wrapped, contoured blades and a white PVC base, their turbine looked like a slick miniature of the full-size GE wind turbine towering in the atrium.
“It didn’t turn out too well,” said team member Izzy Woods.
The turbine’s gear mechanism failed almost immediately in the wind tunnel. They tried to repair it quickly with duct tape, then were given the morning to work on it before returning toward the end of the competition.
“So we’re going last now, but we’ve fixed it, hopefully,” said Izzy.
About 200 students from 19 schools around the Capital Region competed Saturday in the KidWind Challenge for prizes and a chance to go to the East Coast Regional Championship in Virginia April 25.
For the past month or two, hundreds of students at local schools have been designing turbines from scratch, under the guidance of teachers and GE mentors, to prepare for the competition. They’ve studied renewable energy, the physics of wind turbines, gear ratios, friction, how electricity is generated, aerodynamics and so on, to make the best turbines they could.
“I think everyone in the class, even though it was a really stressful, hard project, everyone learned something new,” said Cate Tomson of the Cloud 9 team. “So it was a really cool opportunity. Not a lot of people get to do that.”
In addition to the wind turbine test, students were scored on their knowledge of the physics involved, and on how well they could present their ideas to a panel of judges.
The kids also spent plenty of time visiting other teams, asking about their designs.
“They’re looking at the other designs, seeing how they can fix theirs, observing, taking in the information, making adjustments,” said Colleen Bunce, a teacher at Gregory B. Jarvis Middle School in the Herkimer County village of Mohawk.
About 30 students on three teams from Jarvis competed, out of nearly 90 who participated within the school over the past two months.
“They’ve been working on any available free time — study halls, they’ve been eating lunch in the room and working on it,” said Michael Farber, a teacher at Jarvis. “They love it.”
Keith Longtin, general manager of wind products at GE, said the company jumped at the opportunity to get involved with KidWind after seeing last year’s finalists compete in Las Vegas last spring.
“We’ve moved the wind industry a tremendous amount over the last decade and there’s still room for continued growth,” he said. “Wind turbines are going to get bigger, they’re going to get more cost effective. And in order to do that, you need to invest in technology. In order to invest in technology, you need the right people, and to get the right people, you have to get people engaged in science early. And that’s really what we’re doing here.”