Student's success in addressing real-life problems is an inspiration

A high school student figured out a way to boost wheat yields using diaper material.

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School - from kindergarten through college - is ultimately about teaching students to live full, productive lives. That is often done best when students are given challenges that focus on addressing real-life concerns.

However, doing so can be very time consuming and difficult for students as well as teachers.

Yet, when it's done - and done well - the effort is well worth the investment.

Take, for example, the splash a 16-year-old Odessa, Wash., girl made recently when she won an international science award - and its $12,000 prize - for her science-fair project focusing on finding a way to keep rainwater from evaporating from dryland wheat fields.

Her project was for Jeff Wehr's advanced science class, where half a dozen students work on ideas with real-world applications.

"There's no volcanoes made with baking powder," Wehr said of the projects. "It has to affect the community, the state, the nation or the globe."

So Powell, a high school junior, set out to boost wheat yields by providing more water to the crops dependent only on rain water. Her solution was to spread the powdery material used in disposable diapers on a wheat field. The material soaks up and holds the water that is later used by the growing wheat.

Powell teamed up with a wheat farmer to test three different small plots. The results were promising as spring wheat yields increased from 22 to 27 percent on the two plots of treated land, and not at all on an untreated control plot.

Powell presented her research at the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium in San Diego, winning first prize, a $12,000 scholarship and a July trip to present the work in London, The Associated Press reported. Earlier she won an $8,000 prize for the project.

That's very impressive. And it could be very lucrative.

We have lauded local students in the past for similar real-world, common-sense approaches to learning. Students at Touchet High School have, over the years, taken on similar projects and gotten positive results.

In 2004, for example, Touchet students studied traffic patterns through the little town. They lobbied officials to lower the speed limit, to make the area a no-passing zone and to obtain funds for the new warning signs around the school crossing zone at Hanson Road and U.S. Highway 12.

The students' work resulted in new lane striping to prohibit passing in the area and a grant from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to install the warning lights, which will designate the area a school zone. There have been other such lessons in Touchet and at other schools around the Valley.

And there are sure to be more in the future.

As students take on those real-world projects, Powell's tremendous success should serve as an inspiration. A small science fair project aimed at real problems can result in something very big.

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