On 16 March 2018, 24 students from five different South American countries set off for a two-day trip to the moon. In truth, Punta Del Este, the city on the Atlantic coast where they landed, is actually on this planet, in Uruguay to be precise. However, for these students, aged between 12 and 18, it could easily have been the moon: very few of them had left their countries before and many had never seen the sea. And then, there they were, at the boxes of the Formula E circuit, held on the ocean shore this time, for the sixth ABB FIA Formula E Championship for electric cars, in close contact with the racing cars, the drivers and mechanics, immersed in a world of magic and adrenaline.
This was their prize for submitting winning projects to PlayEnergy, the Enel project for schools established in 2003. Its purpose is to promote awareness of sustainability, renewable sources and the use of energy resources among youngsters and to stimulate their scientific interest and creativity. This is through a competition to find the most innovative ideas in these fields.
The prizes were the final stage in an educational project which last year alone featured 431,000 students and 30,000 teachers from almost 8,000 schools in 11 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, Romania, Spain, Russia, South Africa and Italy). Each institution was provided with three educational kits and teaching courses tailored for each class level. Not only that, Enel experts gave talks and the students were taken on guided tours of power plants. It was a great way to introduce students to the world of electric mobility, sources of clean energy, high efficiency houses, intelligent domestic appliances and smart grids which harness the potential of renewable energy.
The results: after finishing the course in the 11 countries for the 2017 edition, students submitted 3,300 innovative ideas, focused on ways to save energy, improve sustainability and handle problems related to climate change.
To get an idea of the level of creativity expressed by these students, these are this year edition’s winning ideas. A high school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, came up with a system to provide trees with solar panels and produce clean energy for the recharging of small items of daily use, without alterations to the visual landscape. A school in Melo, Uruguay, submitted a project for an ecological water heater made with recycled materials, with an isolation sheath padded with rice. The Kamac Mayus school of Calama, Chile, which stands in the desert of Atacama, created a solar distiller to purify or desalinate water, which is a rare commodity in the region, and makes it drinkable through a process of evaporation followed by condensation. In Ribeira do Piaui, Brazil, the students of the Norberto Fabiano Dos Santos school designed a wheelchair powered by solar energy while those at the Pompilio Martínez institute in Cajicá, Colombia invented a system of hydrogen-based cells to produce clean energy through a process of electrolysis set off by their own urine.
This notion could provoke amusement but, as their teacher Irma Victoria Agudelo Gil, who guided them through the process, pointed out, “It is a way to demonstrate to ourselves, and the rest of the world, that everything, absolutely everything can be recycled to create energy.” After all, these ideas bursting with creativity come from places where “electricity is not a given, where water is scarce, where the lights go out when it rains, and where life teaches you that it is best to try not to throw away anything.”
The winning students and their teachers received their certificates during a ceremony at the Formula E circuit, where they were to watch the Grand Prix the next day. Chris Regan, Enel Head of Formula E, opened the ceremony and the students received their prizes from Carlo Zorzoli, Enel Country Manager for Brazil. “When it comes to global warming and its consequences, we want to be part of the solution” he told the students, continuing “We generate and distribute energy, and we know that real energy lies in you, in your ideas and your creativity.”
“This Enel project is a splendid initiative,” said Tomas Véliz Barraza, a teacher at the school in Calama. “Normally, experiments take place in theory and inside the classrooms. Instead, this time, we followed the input to make something concrete, like our water purifier, and we were able to carry out our activity outside the school and provide it for community use. Who knows, maybe we could even reproduce it on a larger scale, maybe for the entire country.”
Another teacher, Agudelo Gil, echoed his words “The project challenged us to approach technological innovation as something that contributes to the reconstruction of the planet, rather than its destruction as it has until now.” Susana Beatriz Gómez, who teaches at the school in Buenos Aires, added “PlayEnergy has made the students radically change their way of thinking about energy and the good of the planet. I had a student come to me at the end of the course saying ‘I realise that I produce energy when I ride my bike, is there a way to recycle that to be able to use it?’”
Indeed, it doesn’t take much to change perspective, especially at that age. One of the PlayEnergy student winners had declared on arrival in Punta Del Este that “When I grow up I want a Ferrari.” After watching the Formula E Grand Prix, she had changed her mind “Now I want an electric car.”
“If the world continues in the direction that it is headed” – admitted her classmate, Camila Nerea Alvite, “I am very afraid of what the future holds.” Camila is just 16 years old, with all her life ahead of her, and she is right to be concerned. However, she has already started using her life to change that future.