Four sophomores win first at countywide “Aspire3” competition


(From left to right) BioScience director Darcy Duffy, sophomore Torin Hill, sophomore Alyssa Elliott, sophomore Carrie Coonan and sophomore Torin Hill all were excited about the group’s success with “BPA Away.” Credit: Leslie Somma (Used with permission)

Gabby Sones

(From left to right) BioScience director Darcy Duffy, sophomore Torin Hill,  sophomore Alyssa Elliott, sophomore Carrie Coonan and sophomore Torin Hill all were excited about the group's success with "BPA Away." Credit: Leslie Somma  (Used with permission)
(From left to right) BioScience Director Darcy Duffy, sophomore Evan Somma, sophomore Alysa Elliott, sophomore Carrie Coonan and sophomore Torin Hill all were excited about the group’s success with “BPA Away.” Credit: Leslie Somma (Used with permission)

Last weekend at California State University Channel Islands, sophomores Alysa Elliott, Carrie Coonan, Evan Somma and Torin Hill were awarded by the entrepreneurship program Aspire for their product “BPA Away.”

The Aspire program was designed by entrepreneurs and business and community leaders, and is a learning course aligned with the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. It allows middle school, high school and college students to experiment with worldwide problems and use their solutions to become young entrepreneurs.

This is the third year of the Aspire program, so it’s usually called “Aspire3.” Foothill social science teachers Dan Fitz-Patrick and Kurt Miller have worked with the program in the past, but this was the first year BioScience teacher Darcy Duffy or any of her students have participated.

The contest presented by Aspire3 challenged students to create an idea that would fix a specific problem in the world. The broad spectrum gave students freedom to focus on topics that interested them.

Elliott, Coonan, Somma and Hill created the BPA Waste Reduction Agency. Their concept was “BPA Away,” a chemical solution to remove the traces of plastic called BPA, or Bisphenol A, from drinking water.

BPA is an endocrine disruptor and has the ability to mimic our own hormones. It can cause health issues as severe as cancer. Their proposed solution “BPA Away” contains a certain enzyme, found in white rot fungus, that breaks down BPA molecules.

“People can put two drops of our product into their liter water bottle and BPA and bacteria will be eliminated completely. One five ounce bottle of our drops can treat up to a total of 380 liters,” Elliott said.

The four began preparing for the Aspire project in their BioScience Survey class toward the end of January. Duffy had the entire class divide into groups of three to four students.

“We formed the group based on our similar interest in finding a way to clean drinking water for people around the world,” Coonan said. “We worked on the projects for four weeks and then had a classwide competition.”

The “BPA Away” group was one of the three selected from the BioScience Survey class.

Elliott, Coonan, Somma and Hill then competed against their peers and upperclassmen. Their “BPA Away” was up against ideas like all natural beauty products, solar irrigation systems, and a proposal by seniors Cooper Powell and Alejandro Torres called “Focus Tunes,” a software that provides music to help students focus while studying. 

Nevertheless, the four sophomores won the schoolwide title and moved onto the county competition, which took place at Cal State Channel Islands in Malibu Hall, the same venue as Foothill’s 2014 Winter Formal.

Coonan and Somma were both getting confirmed into the Catholic Church during the initial round “expo style,” but Elliott confirmed that this was not a problem.

She said the round was set up “like a science fair,” and that they handed out their business plan to judges.

“Alysa and Torin apparently did really well and our group was selected to move onto the second and final round, which was the presentations,” Coonan said.

For their presentation, the students used Prezi, a slideshow software introduced in Jason Dinkler’s tenth grade honors English class. After Somma delivered the group’s speech, the judges asked a few questions in the “Shark Tank style” finals; they asked why their proposal was trustworthy and how the money would be handled.

The judges chose first, second and third places for the high school and middle school divisions combined. Second and third place were both awarded to middle school teams, and the BPA Waste Reduction Agency was awarded first.

The second place team proposed an idea for biodegradable agriculture plastic that would save water while also adding nutrients and pesticides to soil. The third place team had the idea of a Roomba house cleaner that would be used for security, monitoring fires and break ins.

Other groups researched solutions through technology, engineering, and business, but Foothill approached through science, which Coonan, Elliott and Somma wish to pursue in the future. Hill is interested in business.

Elliot and Somma agree that Aspire opens doors for the group’s future careers. Duffy believes that even if they don’t go into science, they’ve still taken away experience from the program.

“I think they each have specific career dreams and hopes that do not necessarily correspond with this project specifically, but everything they learn from this process will drive them to be successful in those careers,” Duffy said.

The team plans to continue the project with their award money. They received $3,000 from the final county competition and $350 from the school wide competition, so they already have what Coonan calls “a jumpstart” on following through with their product.

“The beauty of their business plan is the early phases of research can be done right here in our Foothill Biotechnology Lab and requires minimal funding, so their prize money will be enough for them to start,” Duffy said

The BPA Waste Reduction Agency was also granted automatic access into the Aspire3 accelerator course with a chance to pitch investor and start their own business. The group is already planning their next steps.

“We might also create a Kickstarter or Indiegogo to help us earn more money,” Coonan said. “The initial steps of creating the product wouldn’t take much more than what we have now, but somewhere down the road we might need a lot more if we continue all the way on to completing the product.”

The BPA team members agree the months of hard work paid off. Their enzyme can be produced in the Foothill labs by their senior year. For now, they plan to focus on testing, getting their product approved by the FDA and finding a business or biotechnology mentor.

Duffy believes the team’s project was unique because it was simple science that could be done at school, yet it could potentially save people from deadly health hazards.

“Developing a product to remove [BPA] from our water source is very important for our society,” she said.

What do you think?