Student team creates water filter from litter

To find students applying STEM learning to real-life problems, look no further than four Gahanna Middle School East eighth-graders. 

As their entry in an eCYBERMISSION competition sponsored by the Army Educational Outreach Program, the student team came up with a waste-saving, water-purifying idea that has garnered $25,000. Julia Bray, Luke Clay, Natalie Clay and Ashton Cofer created a process called Styro-Filter, which aims to convert polystyrene waste (disposable foam cups, plates, coolers and packing material) into activated carbon for water filtration. 

In June, their idea won a $5,000 STEM-in-Action grant at the eCYBERMISSION national judging event in Washington, D.C. The project also garnered a $20,000 award in a FIRST LEGO League competition. We asked team member Ashton, who is 14 years old and will attend ninth grade at Columbus Academy in the fall, to tell us about the project and the process:

Registration for eCybermission teams opens today.

Ashton Cofer, previous eighth grader at Gahanna Middle School East, talks with us about his team's Styro-Filter.
Ashton Cofer, previous eighth grader at Gahanna Middle School East, talks with us about his team’s Styro-Filter.

Q: Tell us about your team, how you got together and how you chose your project.

A: We are friends from school, and we all enjoy playing soccer. Last year, a couple of our team members took a trip to Central America and were overwhelmed by the amount of plastic-foam trash littered on the beach. After further research, we found that the existing solutions to recycle plastic foam were limited, and that inspired us to think of a solution.

Q: What did the project involve? How often did you work on it, and how did you divide the tasks?

A: Our project was a process to convert plastic-foam trash into activated carbon for purifying water. We started working on it in summer 2015, and we met a couple of times a week on our own time. At each meeting, we gave out assignments for each team member to work on and used Google Docs to share our findings.

Q: Did adults help you?

A: Our coaches guided us and helped schedule meetings, because we are all very busy. They also helped us communicate with experts, who gave us advice.

Q: What part of the project was the most fun? What part was the hardest?

A: The most fun part would definitely be when our project finally worked, and we realized that we had actually created activated carbon. However, getting to that point was very hard, as we had many failures in the beginning, and it was very discouraging.


Q: What did you learn from completing this project?

A: We have learned a lot about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But, more important, we learned that we can take our invention to the next level, and how a small idea can lead to something much greater.

Q: Your project won a grant from eCYBERMISSION and one from the FIRST LEGO League! What will the grants be used for?

A: We received a $5,000 STEM-in-Action grant, which we plan to use toward filing a full patent on our Styro-Filter process. We also received $20,000 from the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award, sponsored by XPRIZE. We plan to use the grant to further our research, development and testing of Styro-Filter.

Q: Will you try to market your invention?

A: We would first like to work with partners to further test and develop our solution, and that would include increasing the effectiveness of our activated carbon.

Q: If you did the project again, would you do anything differently?

A: We would definitely have liked to have done the tests right the first time, because the many failures strongly discouraged us at the beginning, and we were close to giving up.

Q: Would you recommend eCYBERMISSION to other kids?

A: We would definitely recommend the eCYBERMISSION competition to other kids. We learned a lot, and it also prepared us for the real world where people work together on projects. We also learned that things don’t always work on the first try, but after a lot of hard work and testing, it can really pay off.

John Clay, employee at Battelle and father of Natalie and Luke, helped the team as their personal technical consultant.

As Ashton Cofer said, adults helped to guide the Gahanna Middle School East team in the eCYBERMISSION project. One of those adults is John Clay, father of team members Luke and Natalie Clay and an employee of Battelle. He shared a bit about his role in the project:

Q: How did you become involved with the eCYBERMISSION project? 

A: My son, Luke, has been part of a robotics team with Ashton Cofer for three years. In the past year, Luke’s twin sister, Natalie, also participated in the team, including going to eCYBERMISSION this past year.

Q: What was your role with the team?

A: My role would best be described as a technical consultant. I have a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and was able to review the team’s project and provide feedback on some of the technical issues.

Q: Do you think participating in this project was a positive learning experience for the team members? 

A: The eCYBERMISSION experience has been outstanding.  The kids have learned a lot, got exposure to public presentation of complex technical issues, and were mentored by excellent role models while in the Washington, D.C., area for the competition.

Q: Would you recommend others — adults or students — take part in a similar project with eCYBERMISSION?

A: I would highly recommend this for both students and adults.  Increasing awareness of the potential impacts of STEM solutions for our country and the world is essential to groom the next generation of scientists. The opportunities presented to the students through eCYBERMISSION are outstanding and reinforce the importance of STEM expertise. In addition, participation at eCYBERMISSION was fun for the kids.  For the adults, taking time to mentor a team is rewarding.


To learn more about how to get involved in eCYBERMISSION, visit

Edited by Patricia Bitler, freelance writer and editor.

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