Students at Louisa County High School won accolades in a national competition for their work building the Wireless on Wheels internet stations that have spread throughout the county.
The program was the runner-up in the National STEM Innovation Challenge, with the finalists announced on April 20 by the Center for Energy Workforce Development, a nonprofit consortium of power companies. A Kansas high school’s entry came in first place, after Louisa topped about a dozen competitors from the East Coast.
The wireless stations, which run on batteries powered by solar panels, have helped students do their homework and other community members to access the internet during the coronavirus pandemic, when broadband became even more of an essential item.
The idea for the stations was hatched in a conversation in spring 2020 between two Louisa County Public Schools staff. They were trying to figure out how students would get their assignments virtually when they couldn’t go to school in person. Maj. Tom Bourne, technology instructor, said that Kenny Bouwens, career and technology education director for STEAM and Innovation, and Technology Director David Childress came up with the concept and suggested that Bourne implement it in his classes.
By late fall, students in Bourne’s Energy and Power and Materials and Process classes had built 30 of the wireless units and set them up in store and church parking lots around the county. Meanwhile, construction plans and a list of components for the units were posted on a school website, so anyone could obtain them free of charge.
“Anybody could get the materials themselves and build a Wireless on Wheels trailer for their own purposes,” Hayden MacDougall, a senior in the Energy and Power class, told a panel of judges during the competition. “There is no intention to make money off this project – it’s purely to give back to the community.”
Indeed, Bourne said during a recent stay in Radford, a town in southwest Virginia, he looked out the window and saw a wireless station modeled on the ones Louisa students have built.
Last spring, each wireless station cost $2,500 to build; with the spiraling cost of lumber during the pandemic, it now costs about $3,600, Bourne said. Had the schools paid a professional contractor to build them, the price would have been much higher.
The competition was another tool students could use to move toward careers in the energy industry, if they decide to stay on that course. The three-judge panel included employees at Dominion Energy and a Florida power company, who encouraged the students to feature the wireless stations prominently on their resumes.
“The National STEM Innovation Challenge encourages students to apply technical knowledge and skills by assessing information, testing hypotheses, and problem solving,” said Julie Strzempko, who managed the competition. “Through this exciting challenge, students have the ability to gain project management experience, including teamwork, solution formulation, and presentation skills – aptitudes that are so crucial in the energy sector.”
Logan Self, another senior who participated in the competition, said he intends to pursue a career as a lineman with an electricity supplier, while MacDougall has long-term plans for a master’s degree in engineering.
Bourne’s class was awarded a $500 prize for its second-place showing in the competition. He said Louisa has enough wireless internet stations for now, so next fall his students will focus on solar and wind power generally.