Larrisa Brown, Kaitlyn Duarte and Rachel Kagan

Salmon or hydropower? Both are critical to the Washington state economy, but gains for one industry often mean losses to the other. The steps of three high-school students may literally help solve this longtime dilemma.

At Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, Wash., senior Rachel Kagan and teammates Kaitlyn Duarte and Larisa Brown learned about the declining salmon population in their environmental class. River dams that generate electricity also can be an obstacle to fish migration.

When young salmon hatch and grow to the 3-inch fingerling size, they swim downstream. Unfortunately, many fingerlings are sucked into the dams’ turbines. Lowering turbine speeds means economic loss for the power plants, and the process isn’t foolproof: lots of the fish still die.

The students chose this problem as the basis of their Engineering Technology/Design entry in the SkillsUSA Championships. Between the three of them, their studies had covered computer-assisted drafting, chemistry, physics, robotics, statics (an engineering term), environmental science, language arts, trigonometry, geometry and calculus. Using these complementary skills, the team found what they consider the best solution: combining a slide with stairs to help the fingerlings swim downstream.

They began by studying the ladders already built near dams to help salmon swim upstream. “We thought, ‘Why not just harvest that idea and utilize and manipulate it to be dual purpose instead of just one purpose?’ ” Brown says.

“We wanted a solution that would adapt to the environment, to mimic nature,” Duarte adds. “This invention would transform from stairs to a slide — simplistic, yet efficient. The stairs will systematically drop down, then a slide will be created.”

With their design, the stairs are raised in the fall, when mature salmon return to fresh water to spawn. In the spring, the stair dividers are dropped, allowing the young salmon, or smolt, to safely slide downstream.

Gills and drills

Thanks to a Lowe’s grant offered through SkillsUSA, their school was able to purchase tools, which the team needed to construct their working prototype. As they got started, the students realized they were breaking new ground.

“Before this year, I hadn’t really used a drill at all,” Kagan reflects. “We don’t have that stuff at home — mostly a screwdriver. But this year, I’ve built with Plexiglas, all sorts of glue, just everything.”

They were also venturing into a career area with students who are predominantly male. Brown, who’d previously competed in a robotics contest, now says she’s proud to have been part of an all-female team in engineering.

As the project progressed, the three developed their skills beyond the technical aspects, such as working under pressure and as part of a group. In fact, their teamwork skills became so synchronized, they started answering questions in unison, according to Duarte.

Through the SkillsUSA competition experience, Kagan says she learned a great deal about both time management and building things from her teammates and her instructor, Jim Adamson.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights staying up and working on this, but we learned the outcomes,” she admits.

“Originally when I first started working on this project,” Duarte explains, “I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got this great idea; I don’t know where to go with it at all’ … and then I ran into Rachel. Rachel’s all like, ‘We could do this part, too, if we modify that,’ and then Larisa’s all like, ‘Well, if we apply statics to this, we could have this, and this could work.’ It’s like a snowball effect. We just kind of go down a mountain, and then at the end, we have what we have currently constructed.”

The team’s process included rendering computer models and printing them on a 3-D printer. They also developed an animated 3-D video showing how their combination stair slide works.

“We looked at different systems of flipping up, flipping down, moving side to side, dropping down into the foundation and things like that,” Brown says. They considered how the rivers would be affecting the material and talked to an industry professional in concrete and construction.

Brown adds, “We also addressed what the impact of this system would be on the people around, on the communities, the local home owners, the people eating the fish, the fish themselves, making sure the fish would be able to survive through the system using lots of calculations.”

STEM-ing the tide

Working on the competition has helped all of them sort out their career paths. Each is pursuing a career in a field related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Kagan, in her final year of high school, plans on a career in chemical or nuclear engineering. Brown is majoring in electrical engineering at Seattle University, specializing in computer engineering. She plans to earn a master’s degree and work in robotics or the aerospace industry.

“I originally was a little iffy on what I wanted to do,” says Duarte, who’s now at Whitworth University in Spokane, studying computer science and international business management.

Duarte adds that her role with the team was heavy in planning and management. “And actually, I didn’t know I was interested in management until I did this team effort. Being in an actual working environment, we have been communicating with all types of people. It’s been very much an eye-opening experience.

“SkillsUSA enables you to have this opportunity to take your basic knowledge and accumulate it into a full project and actually implement it,” she explains.

According to Duarte, the competition allowed them to apply the concepts they were learning in their science classes, with the added bonus of helping the students sharpen their communications skills.

“We got to apply all of this into our own concept, take it out of our brains, and make it into a reality.”