NEW AUBURN — Aliya North and Evelyn Cody are just breezing through their studies at New Auburn Middle School — so to speak.

The New Auburn eighth-graders have been perfecting the construction of a tabletop wind turbine, meticulously testing the performance and efficiency of various materials such as Styrofoam, plastic and balsa wood as they prepare to compete Saturday in the Wisconsin KidWind Challenge in Madison.

A box fan provides the wind they need in their tests. An anemometer is hooked up to the turbine to measure data for energy output and efficiency that is transmitted via Bluetooth wireless technology to a Chromebook, where the girls observe results in real time.

They’ve also been learning how to read an electrical bill, calculate energy charges for the running of certain household appliances and troubleshoot.

“Going into it, I didn’t know a lot about (how green energy works),” Evelyn said. “It’s been nice to learn how much you can do with it.”

Seven Wisconsin middle school teams will compete, and two will qualify for the National KidWind Challenge set for May 23-25 in Houston.

Participants discover the promise and limitations of wind energy technology by designing, building and testing their own functional creative wind turbine. The event consists of wind turbine performance tests, prepared presentations by teams and judges’ questioning.

Teams design and assemble wind turbines, building gear trains and blades that are attached to a 2-watt generator, then placed in a 4-foot-square wind tunnel with a 4- to 5-meter-per-second wind flow. Energy produced in 30 seconds against a 30-ohm load is measured in joules.

Aliya and Evelyn will compete in the middle school division. The girls’ interest in wind energy was piqued last fall during an agriscience class taught by Brenda Scheil. Last November, they hosted an all-day wind energy workshop in which more than 80 local students participated.

“This is totally new turf for us,” said Scheil, who often has students competing in the state and national FFA agriscience fairs. “I think it’s important for students to learn the language. We keep moving forward; renewable energy is a topic out there. They need to learn the language to make informed decisions.”

Lately, the girls have been working on their turbine in their free time. Both say this project has inspired them to pursue careers in engineering.

“I definitely really like the whole engineering career choice,” Evelyn said. “I have learned how to work with circuits and find new ideas and test things. The whole green energy process is really cool.”

Aliya said she enjoys brainstorming and coming up with new ideas, such as the notion of making the turbine blades out of solar panels to capture power from both the wind and the sun.

They plan to add a solar component for their entry in the Wisconsin FFA Agriscience Fair this June in Madison. Adding energy produced by light about doubles the turbine’s energy input.

Scheil also offers a one-semester Green Energies course that grew out of her eighth-grade agriscience class. Launched for the 2017-18 school year, the class drew 11 students in its first year and 19 this year. She said she knows of no other Wisconsin agriscience department offering it.

The answer is blowing in the wind ...

Richard Anderson, a retired high school technical education teacher from Darlington who serves as state KidWind adviser, said hands-on learning and problem solving is the best way to engage students in learning.

“They get the idea of what is required. They put something together and then test it out and measure the output. Now, they go back to the drawing board and try to improve the output. They can wing it, research it or some combination of the two. Then, they put it back into the wind tunnel and see how they did,” he said. “Straight up, the numbers do not lie — only reasons, no excuses. And if another group of students did better, they take note and adjust accordingly. Now, the competition is on.”

Producing electricity from wind is complex, he said, and students see there’s more to it than what meets the eye — spinning blades. Once engaged, many students find it difficult to walk away.

“It gets to the point where you have to turn off the lights and lock the doors to get them to stop and go home — the dream of all teachers,” he said. “But then they come back the next day and want to try something they thought up or read about.”

A lifelong learner, he said he has been interested in renewable energy since the 1970s and closely observed EDP Renewables’ construction of a wind farm in Darlington.

“I had to get a firsthand, up-close and personal look at the process,” he said, adding that he also has his own small, home-unit wind turbine.

He became acquainted with the KidWind program and attended a training in Colorado before launching three teams in Darlington and one in Shullsburg that competed in the 2018 KidWind Challenge in Madison. Three teams advanced to the national event in Chicago, where they competed against more than 40 other middle school teams. Darlington teams took second and fifth places.

Anderson said the contest consists of three parts plus two instant challenges. Forty percent of scoring is based on the energy produced by each team’s turbine in a wind tunnel, 30 percent is based on turbine and blade design and 20 percent is based on the team’s documentation and presentation about the design process and what they learned.

“Judges ask questions and look for good, sound engineering processes and explanations, as well as creativity in their problem-solving,” he said.

The last 10 percent is made up of hands-on, “pencil and paper problem-solving” with little or no preparation. Each instant challenge is limited to 30 minutes.

“Last year, it was to build a sail car and see how far a 20-inch box fan could propel it, and then they had to construct a vertical axis wind turbine from scrap materials,” Anderson said.