courtesy of US FIRST newsletter

Area Girl Scouts worked with RIT engineers to develop a winning milk pasteurization project that will be used in Nicaraguan villages

Even with news of photography giant Kodak’s current setbacks, Cheryl Lawniczak remained positive. Her biggest inspiration for how important science and technology remain for today’s society comes from a small, but enthusiastic, group of Hippie Pandas.

Lawniczak is the Coach and Mentor of the “Hippie Pandas,” a four-member FIRST LEGO League (FLL) team of Girl Scouts from Rochester, New York. The chemical engineer at Eastman Kodak Co. was on hand when the Hippie Pandas took home the 2011 Champion’s Award at the December FIRSTLEGO League tournament.

“It is my first year in FLL,” says Ashley Stafford, one of the Hippie Pandas and a sixth grader at Churchville Chili Middle School. “I learned a lot of new things like programming, building a robot, and pasteurizing, so it is great to be going to the World Festival in my first year.”

The Hippie Pandas shared their design of a milk pasteurization system — conceived as part of this season’s FLL Food Factor® Challenge — with Lawniczak’s niece, Ashley Bleistein, who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chinandega, Nicaragua. “We learned that third world countries drink raw milk, which has a lot of bacteria,” says Panda teammate Emily Sabo, an 8th grader at Churchville Chili Middle School. “We thought our solar pasteurizer would have the most impact in their communities.”

The Hippie Pandas reviewed the solar pasteurizer design with Rochester Institute of Technology engineering professors, Sarah Brownell and Robert Stevens. Both professors have designed equipment and worked in regions such as Haiti and Central America. (l to r) Sarah Brownell, Ashley Stafford, Emily Sabo, Jodie Reese, Carolyn Grant, and Robert Stevens

While home for the holidays this year, Bleistein visited with the girls and learned firsthand about the different pieces of equipment they used for their project. “We showed her how we rolled our mats and made reflectors. Then we showed her how we made the wax indicator because thermometers are very expensive there,” says Lawniczak. Bleistein is currently translating the Hippie Pandas’ training guide into Spanish, and working with personnel at the health clinic where she is assigned so that they can go back and train people in their villages.

The girls also met with two faculty members from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Robert Stevens and Sarah Brownell. Both teach in the mechanical engineering department in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “Both Sarah and I have some expertise in water treatment including solar pasteurization, as well as experience working in developing countries,” says Stevens whose undergraduate engineering students were awarded honorable mention for their cook stove in a recent EPA competition called the People, Prosperity and the Planet Awards Program. “Once Cheryl contacted me and set up a meeting, I naturally thought of Sarah because of her work in Haiti and her expertise in water treatment technologies.”

Brownell worked at the HOPE health clinic in Borgne, Haiti, to develop and install a solar-powered drinking-water disinfecting system at the clinic.“I was impressed with how much they understood about solar pasteurization, especially with the technique of using melting wax as a means to indicate when the water had been properly pasteurized,” says Stevens. “The Hippie Pandas used their intuition to develop a novel approach to solar pasteurization.”

The approach earned the Hippie Pandas a place at the FLL World Festival, but even better than the win, says Lawniczak, was the news that their solar pasteurization process for milk is being developed for use in Nicaragua—right now. “I think what helped us get the award was that it reached out beyond our girls, and the fact that it is being implemented is really a precedent,” says Lawniczak, who also mentors Churchville Chili High School’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team. “I don’t think there is a FIRST presence in Nicaragua, so I think we may be the first contact.”