When four 8th graders at Wheatland Middle School were asked to put their heads together to solve a real problem in their community, they thought back to the biggest crisis in recent memory—the quarter-mile-wide twister that touched down near their town in 2012. Jacob Stafford, Joey Madsen, Haiden Moody and Christian Moody remember the day the tornado very hit well. And it made an impression them, because it was just miles from their school.
"I actually went and did cleanup for this and saw the devastation firsthand. It was just a really big—a big thing," Stafford said. "We remember having to kneel down in front of the lockers outside with books over our head—and of course that's not going to protect us from any sort of tornado."
So, the group set out to build something better—a heavy duty tornado shelter. They didn't have to look far for building material.
"We were looking around and it was like, what could protect us better than these textbooks?," said Moody. "And so we're looking at these giant metal lockers that we’re leaned up against and we're like, 'hey, this could do pretty good against a cinderblock.' So, we kind of went with the idea of how common these things are and how almost every school has them."
They spent the next few months researching, designing and building a prototype tornado shelter. It's basically a row of five ordinary school lockers on a sliding steel frame.
When in its "deployed" position, the bottom of the row of lockers is rolled a couple of feet forward—and the unit is slanted back against the steel frame, leaving students enough room enough room to crawl underneath the lockers and take shelter.
"And this angle right here is a 45 degree angle," says Stafford, pointing out the space beneath the locker. "Which is optimum for deflecting debris."
They did put the structure to the test, pelting it with cinderblocks and dropping heavy wooden pallets on it from the school roof.
"It performed beyond our expectations," said Haiden Moody. "The most damage that it ever sustained was scratches and one broken off handle for a locker, and even then, that's just because the handles are external."
The boys tested their invention further when they entered it into a science, technology, engineering and math competition called eCYBERMISSION, sponsored by the U.S. Army. They won first place in the region and will head to Washington, D.C. this month for nationals.
"We're four kids from Wheatland, Wyoming, a nobody of a town, and we’re just ecstatic that we're able to make it this far," Stafford said.
They say they owe much of their success to their science teacher and project advisor, Miken Harnish. She's been entering students in this competition for the last 5 years, and says this kind of hands-on STEM education is crucial.
"It takes science out of just textbooks and 'we're just learning science.' It's puts us in the position of doing science,' said Harnish. "And to watch what these kids are capable of is just amazing—when you actually let them do the science and not just learn about it or read about it. It's so important to me."
Harnish has motivated the boys, but she wasn’t the only motivating factor. The first prize from the U.S. Army also helped.
"Well each of us got 3,000 in savings bonds, so overall the team has about $12,000," said Christian Moody.
If they win at nationals, they each stand to earn $5,000 more. Joey Madsen says the group has plans for some of their winnings.
"We're thinking of getting a patent attorney and then selling the patent or maybe even starting a company out of this and maybe selling these lockers and turning a profit on them also,' he said.
These boys mean business. So much so, that even though school is ending for the summer, they're not going anywhere.
"We'll be coming back almost almost every day, working to get our idea better and get ready for Washington, D.C.," said Madsen.
They'll be up against four other teams of 8th graders from around the country—including a group of girls from Oklahoma with a competing tornado shelter project.
These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.