"Imagine Tomorrow," a new competition for high-school students sponsored by Washington State University and state business leaders, challenges the generation that is inheriting global warming to find alternate-energy and other solutions.

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A little more than a year ago, several professors at Washington State University got to wondering: What would happen if we asked a bunch of high-school kids to imagine the future of energy?

Given that this is the generation inheriting global warming, why not give its members an early say in how to solve that mess?

The result of those questions: “Imagine Tomorrow,” a challenge to explore ways to move to alternate-energy sources.

“The idea was to put the initiative and energy of high-school students together with the resources of our university and Washington’s business and industry leaders,” explains M. Grant Norton, contest co-chair and associate dean of research and graduate programs, WSU College of Engineering and Architecture.

Bringing in business had two advantages: It would expose students to real-world dynamics and give them a chance at lots of prize money — almost $100,000. (The Seattle Times was one of 26 community and business sponsors of the event.)

More than 370 students from 32 Washington high schools showed their stuff on the Pullman campus the weekend of May 9-11.

Jill Watz, contest co-chair and director of Vulcan Inc.’s climate-change initiative, looked over the 86 projects spread out across the Bohler Gym floor and commented: “There’s a real diversity of projects. Many on hydrogen, everybody’s first love — then they get over it and move on.”

Contest planners wanted more than a science competition and included categories related to societal and behavioral aspects of sustainability. That opened the field, and students responded:

• A project from the Tacoma School of Arts advocated exercise parks lit by generators hooked up to human-powered machines.

• From the same school, an “environmentorship” project — high-school students mentor middle-schoolers once a week on sustainability practices.

• Vancouver’s Heritage High School students explained how they produce 100 gallons of biodiesel each week from grease collected at school cafeterias.

• From Ballard High School in Seattle, a system to replace water meters, which just measure usage, with small turbines that use water flow to generate power.

• A working hydrogen-hybrid engine from a Future Farmers of America team from Rosalia High School in Whitman County.

• A hybrid car from two brothers from Colfax High School in Whitman County.

• A Bellingham High School demonstration of using the carbon-dioxide emissions from concrete plants to grow algae to make biofuel.

The 70 judges strolled the floor, posing questions: “What is the overall impact of all your components?” “What do you do with your waste from biodiesel production?”

Catherine Kerns, one of three Lake Roosevelt (Coulee Dam, Okanogan County) High School students who won the grand prize, realized her team might have a chance when so many judges came by to talk “and we really thought so when they had to tell them to stop interviewing us.” Their project involved three alternative-fuel sources (solar, hydro and wind) to power an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen.

Each of the three won $5,000. Kerns, a senior, moves on, but the others, Elizabeth Owen and Peter Rise, plan to compete in Imagine Tomorrow next year. (Other interested students, mark the date: May 29-31, 2009). They considered refining the hydrogen project but then got over it and are now moving on to new ideas.

Redmond High School entered four projects and took two firsts and a third prize. Its winner in the societal challenge detailed a competition the students started at the school to reduce classroom-carbon emissions, mostly by changing everyday habits, such as using a ceramic coffee cup instead of a paper one. “Cool Schools Challenge” had also won the 2007 President’s Environment Youth Award (complete with Rose Garden ceremony).

Joseph Hegge, one of the Redmond winners, says Cool Schools makes him optimistic as he imagines what his generation’s tomorrow will be.

“It showed that so much can be done through simple, behavioral changes that it’s impossible not to be hopeful about the future.”

Freelance writer John B. Saul is the former deputy metro editor at The Seattle Times and teaches journalism at the University of Montana. He can be reached at jbsaul@mac.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

For video, photo gallery and a list of all projects and winners, go to: seattletimes.com/pacificnw