Last year Bethel High School's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) Club proved they could hang with the big dogs, becoming one of 16 semi-finalists across the country to vie for the grand prize in the Lexus Eco Challenge, a nationwide contest designed to encourage middle and high school students to develop and implement environmental projects that positively impact their communities.

THE ISSUE: Oklahoma has experienced a substantial increase in more frequent and stronger earthquakes in the past few years. Studies have shown the cause can be linked to wastewater injection, which is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

LOCAL IMPACT: Bethel High School STEM students are addressing the tough issue, as well as other environmental challenges, by participating in a nationwide contest to seek ways to effect change.

Last year Bethel High School's science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) Club proved they could hang with the big dogs, becoming one of 16 semi-finalists across the country to vie for the grand prize in the Lexus Eco Challenge, a nationwide contest designed to encourage middle and high school students to develop and implement environmental projects that positively impact their communities.

This year, the district entered the ring swinging with a one-two punch, boasting two teams — the Water Warriors and the Energized Elite — that have earned a slot in the final 16. Being semi-finalists also gained each team $10,000, distributed as follows:

• A $1,000 prize is awarded directly to Bethel Teacher/Advisor Annie Keehn per finalist.

• A $7,000 prize is evenly distributed among team members — Warriors have 10 team members, and the Elite have nine.

• A $2,000 prize goes to Bethel High School per finalist.

For the final, the teams will need to expand their projects and spreading their ideas in an effort to initiate positive environmental change.

There are two categories with eight finalists each — Land & Water and Air & Climate; Bethel is represented in both.

Bethel's teams will compete against 14 other teams from across the nation for a grand prize of $30,000 (one middle school team and one high school team) in grants and scholarships. Four first-place prizes of $15,000 in grants and scholarships will also be awarded to four high school teams.

Teacher/Adviser Annie Keehn said the teams have about a month left to finish their projects.

According to the challenge website, at lexus.scholastic.com, potential winners will be notified on or about March 10 by email.

Water Warriors

One team — the Water Warriors — seeks to find alternative solutions to wastewater injection, a current practice in the state riddled with problems.

In September, the Bethel STEM students experienced the strongest earthquake recorded in Oklahoma’s history, actually feeling the temblor at their school, which is 250 miles from the quake's epicenter in Pawnee.

After investigating the cause, the 10-member team knew their project needed to focus on educating others about wastewater injection, a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing.

Gracie O'Rorke, a sophomore, said the team understands that the oil industry is very important to Oklahoma.

“So we know we can't just stop wastewater injection completely, but maybe we can find ways to limit the negative effects of it,” O'Rorke said.

Sophomore Rebekah Clemmons said the Warriors did a lot of research looking into ways to filter the water in hopes of making it useful in some way — but in the end they discovered that filtering was too expensive for energy companies to consider.

Then the team aimed their focus on reduction.

“Maybe we can halt or at least slow down how much is being brought in from other states to inject here,” Clemmons said.

Online research is not the only way the group learned about the issue.

The team talked to other students, gauging their level of awareness.

Michael Potter, a senior, said he was surprised at how many thought earthquakes were being caused as a direct result of fracking itself.

“It's not the fracking that's doing it, it's the wastewater injection,” he said.

For their final project, they are working with members of the oil industry, geologists, and state government leaders to find solutions that will positively impact the environment.

On the Water Warriors team are Sophomores Clemmons, O'Rorke, Keagan Engle, and Brooke Shaw; Juniors are Dalton Brown and Trinity Young; Seniors are Darrian Mills, Joey Melot, Potter and Savannah Stephens.

Energized Elite

Fitting into the category of Air & Climate, the nine-members of the Energized Elite have channeled their energy into reducing carbon emissions after learning that carbon emissions are increasing globally each year.

Sophomore Kyla Hanigar said, Bethel, being a rural school district, deals with longer (and farther) travel every day (than many city schools).

The team encouraged the student body to carpool to school for the sole purpose of saving carbon emissions. On this day alone, 75 participants saved an estimated total of 1,216 pounds of emitted carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition to the Carpool Day, they also teamed up with the school's welding class to make a bike rack to donate to a local park to encourage community members to use cleaner, alternative transportation.

Lillian Fuller, also a sophomore, said, “Since we didn't have any funds to use, we talked about the project to the welding class to make a bike rack to encourage more bicycling.”

They also taught a hands-on pollution lesson to the district’s fifth graders.

“We taught lower elementary students about the level of chemicals were being released into the air and ways they could help reduce that,” Hanigar said.

Their final project is two-fold: They want to spread their carpool day event idea to schools across the state and they developed a campaign, called "Bikes and Racks," to encourage high school welding classes to build bike racks to donate to their communities.

Hanigar said the team hopes the racks will encourage cycling on a larger scale in other communities.

On the Energized Elite team are Sophomores Harley Gregory, Abby-Grayce Hall, Fuller and Hanigar; Juniors are Chase Smithey and Dalton Veeley; Seniors are Eli Prince, Samantha Tipton and Madeline Bristol.

The competition

The Lexus Eco Challenge, created by automaker Lexus and Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education, and media company, was designed to educate young people about the environment and to inspire them to create a better world.

The Challenge is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Last year

Bethel's STEM Club team, The Noteable Recyclists, won $10,000 as one of 16 semi-finalists across the nation in last year's Eco Challenge.

The project was started after Bethel lost its recycling program in 2015 when its recycling provider started charging for services. With no money in the school budget to continue the program, the STEM students sought ways to recycle internally, which led them to develop a method to create notepads from discarded copy paper.

More info

For more information about the Water Warriors and Energized Elite, visit their websites at http://thewaterwarriors.wixsite.com/2016 and http://energizedelite.wixsite.com/mysite.

You can reach Vicky O. Misa at (405) 214-3962.