By Kim Plummer Krull
Her South St. Louis County, Mo., congregation knows Christina Yepez through youth activities and church music ensembles, but it’s her science project with fellow “Blockheads” that caught the attention of President Barack Obama.
“It was the coolest thing,” Christina, 13, said of participating in the sixth annual White House Science Fair, April 13 in Washington, D.C.
Christina — who has grown up at Peace Lutheran Church — and four other members of Girl Scout Troop 1484 at Sperreng Middle School were one of only 40 student teams nationwide invited to showcase their innovative projects.
Even better, the Blockheads — the team’s Lego-inspired name since second grade — were among a handful of students who actually spoke with the commander-in-chief, explaining their environmentally friendly solution for Styrofoam cups, a major landfill challenge.
“He said he’s going to follow us on our website and look for our glue to be on stores shelves someday,” said Christina, whose team developed a metal bin with a nontoxic substance to safely dissolve Styrofoam.
The girls also discovered a bonus byproduct: a leftover adhesive they turned into glue, bottling it for school art projects. Now the Blockheads, with a parental assist, are pursuing patents for both their “EcoBin” and “EcoGloo.”
Brainstorming at senior living community
For Christina and her teammates, the road to the White House began at a surprising location — a St. Louis area senior living community.
Christina’s mother, Michelle Yepez — a longtime Peace member who, like her daughter, plays with the church orchestra and wind symphony — is the girls’ troop leader. They conduct most of their garage and kitchen-table experiments at the Yepez home in Sunset Hills, a St. Louis suburb.
The girls call themselves the Blockheads, a nod to the science-themed FIRST LEGO League (FLL) youth competitions Yepez steered them toward.
“This was an opportunity for them to do more with science, technology and engineering,” said Michelle, a pharmacist by trade.
Last year the Blockheads tackled the national FLL challenge to solve an environmental problem involving trash. The lightbulb went off as they brainstormed with staff at Friendship Village, a senior-living community where another classmate’s mother is marketing director.
“We were sitting there and one of the [staff members] pointed to her Styrofoam cup and said that was the biggest problem,” said Christina, who learned that the retirement community tosses 20,000 Styrofoam cups every month — trash that takes some 500 years to decompose in a local landfill.
With Michelle as their coach, the Blockheads discovered a simple but innovative way to turn the problem cups into a useful glue — and earned the FLL Innovative Solution award, an honor that helped open a door to their White House invitation.
In the State Dining Room that typically hosts international dignitaries, the budding scientists discussed their project with science fair visitors. Christina enjoyed “seeing all the pictures painted so long ago,” including an Abraham Lincoln portrait.
Also cool, she says, was looking out a window and seeing the Oval Office.
When President Obama asked to glue something, the girls handed him a Blockheads business card that he added to their display poster. The card featured their motto: “When we put our heads together, we can do anything.”
Since their White House visit, Christina and her Blockhead friends — Sindhu Bala, Sydney Gralike, Julianna Jones and Reagan Mattison — have been featured in newspapers and TV newscasts. The mayor proclaimed “Blockhead Day” in Sunset Hills.
On tap is a documentary by the GoPro camera company, which is sending a crew to film the girls doing science experiments.
At Peace Lutheran, Sunday school classmates ask Christina, “Did you really meet the president?” The Rev. Dennis Kastens, senior pastor, who has known Christine even before her Blockheads days, calls the girls’ story “remarkable” and a “tribute to Michelle’s guidance.”
But rather than accolades, Michelle Yepez considers the girls’ greatest achievement skills that will serve them beyond science fairs.
“When you work at something in science, you have to work together to get things done,” she said. “Getting used to working under pressure, working as a team, coming up with ideas together — to learn all that at this age, that’s so important.”
The White House Science Fair is held in conjunction with the president’s plan to train an additional 100,000 science, technology and engineering teachers by 2020.
On down the road, Christina is thinking about a career as a nanoscientist. But first she’s looking forward to finishing seventh grade, plans to play flute as part of her church’s upcoming Memorial Day concerts and is preparing for her Palm Sunday 2017 confirmation at Peace Lutheran Church.
Kim Plummer Krull (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Posted May 31, 2016