Bright students win national Eco Challenge

National Eco Challenge


By Stephanie Bertholdo

A group of six Oak Park High School students was among eight high school teams across the country to win an award in the air and climate portion of the Lexus Eco Challenge.

Their participation in the environmental competition yielded a $10,000 prize. The students will use the money to install solar paneling at the Oak Park Library, which shares a campus with the high school.

The school’s Environmental Interconnectivity Team is made up of 11th-graders Dorinda Fong, Kristen Bender, Alexis Cheney, Rachel Convey, Laura Cruz-Albrecht and Wendy Xiao.

The team adviser was Dave Nelson, a longtime Advanced Placement chemistry and physics teacher who retired at the end of the school year.

The team first formed in middle school, Dorinda said, when several of the team members participated in the Edison Challenge, a program wherein teams of students research an area of energy and the environment and devise ways to educate children and the community about their findings. The Edison Challenge eventually grew into Idea to Impact, which also focuses on environmental innovation, she said.

By the time the girls got to high school, they had narrowed the focus of their project to solar energy, with an eye toward winning a competition that could ultimately pay for the installation of solar panels at the library.

The project placed second in the 2011-12 Idea to Impact competition.

While taking Advanced Placement classes, the students organized educational events at school and in the community. Their project was comprehensive and included an in-depth research proposal on the effects of various colors, or as Dorinda put it, the “varying wavelengths of visible light,” on the efficiency of solar paneling.

“We developed and scripted a comprehensive lesson plan revolving around the environmental interconnectivity between climate change, ocean acidification and solar energy,” she said, “and taught the lesson to Oak Park High School ninth-grade Global Science students.”

The Idea to Impact Challenge required the team to reach out to educate the community about their topic.

First, the girls set up an information booth at the high school pavilion during the screening of “Otter 501,” a movie about an endangered sea otter pup.

The 11th-graders set up a similar booth at a community recycling event at Oak Park High. The girls taught visitors about the benefits of solar energy and showed families how to assemble their own portable solarpowered charger from a kit.

The students also published a website about solar energy, with lessons separated into three different age groups: elementary, middle, and high school and beyond.

“The website,, explains the process of generating electricity from solar energy, provides real-world examples of the application of solar technology and links to other interactive videos, games and sites,” Dorinda said, adding that her team placed first in the 2012-13 Idea to Impact Competition.

By the fall of their junior year, the team was ready to tackle the Lexus Eco Challenge. Nelson guided them in defining an environmental issue, developing and carrying out an action plan and reporting on the results.

“Our team decided to participate in the competition in hopes of raising money towards accomplishing our goal of installing solar panels on the Oak Park Library,” Dorinda said.

The team entered the air and climate round of the challenge and focused on the issue of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The final project centered on the website, which they promoted by collaborating with elementary, middle and high school science teachers, the Oak Park Unified School District Board of Education, Friends of Oak Park Schools and the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council.

Oak Park High Principal Kevin Buchanan said the $10,000 prize could have been kept by Nelson, the students and the school, but together they decided the money would be allocated toward the installation of solar panels at the Oak Park Library.

The students, all of whom are ready to enter their senior year at the school, are happy to serve their community. The team is now collaborating with Ventura County officials, including Supervisor Linda Parks and Ventura County general services energy manager Bruce Fisher, to install the panels.

“Our group decided upon the Oak Park Library because libraries represent centers of learning and knowledge,” Dorinda said. “We believe that by installing solar panels at the library, we would be able to impact a larger and more diverse group of community members, further raising environmental awareness in the community and simultaneously reducing the operational energy usage and cost of the library.”