Remote learning is challenging during the most normal school day activities. It's even harder if you're doing a science project that involves working as a team to build a physical object while still maintaining COVID-safe protocols, says Monte del Sol Charter High School junior Brooklyn Martinez.

She is part of a team of Monte del Sol students who won $4,500 in December in the New Mexico Governor's STEM Challenge for their "garbage to gas" biodigester project.

Because of technical problems with a prototype and challenges posed by COVID-19, the team didn't achieve the exact outcome they were aiming for—they still don't have a fully functional school biodigester. But the experience taught them that getting something right the first time may not always be as valuable as the ability to problem-solve and the willingness to keep trying.

Benigno Sandoval, a mechanical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory who served as one of the judges in the competition, tells SFR the students' tenacity in the face of the setbacks helped them win the prize.

"Monte del Sol did a really good job of exemplifying the fundamentals of research and development," Sandoval tells SFR. "They had a problem, they approached it from a bunch of different perspectives. They were able to overcome their situational obstacles as well as technical difficulties…and they didn't give up. That's hard to do."

The annual challenge was created by the Department of Workforce Solutions and the Public Education Department along with New Mexico State University, and is sponsored by more than a dozen STEM employers from around the state including LANL. Instead of choosing one grand-prize winner, each sponsor chooses a winning team and each winning team member takes home a $500 prize.

The competition encourages students to use science and technology to solve real-world problems as a way to inspire more kids to choose lucrative career paths in STEM fields.

For Sandoval, who also serves as an enthusiastic volunteer in many of LANL's STEM-based education initiatives, the goal is personal. His own family is from Truchas, and Sandoval says he wants to help kids from Northern New Mexico have experiences that make them feel like science is exciting and that they can use science to solve problems impacting their lives.

Monte del Sol junior Angel Martinez says sustainability was his team's primary objective. He tells SFR the students decided to create a biodigester to turn the school's food waste into methane gas that can be captured and used for cooking and heating.

"I was excited to do this project because I think it would be a really good way to start saving energy and to put less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere," says Angel.

Brooklyn agrees.

"It's important to be eco-friendly, and I think it's really cool and nice that our school explores sustainability," she says.

It's the second week of the new spring semester, and science teacher Rhonda Crespo—who guided the students through the STEM challenge—has invited SFR to interrupt her programming class to chat with the students on the team via Zoom.

The teens tell SFR they encountered multiple setbacks while building the biodigester prototypes out of donated containers and programming a sensor and a mini-computer known as a "raspberry pi" to measure the amount of methane gas being produced.

One of the greatest challenges was figuring out the logistics imposed by COVID-19, such as who would go to school in-person to work on the project, connectivity issues, programming the computer from a distance, and transferring data between multiple devices.

"The communication was really hard," Brooklyn tells SFR, "and we all have different family situations in terms of protection and being safe with COVID."

The team built three separate biodigester prototypes—one at school and two at the homes of individual students—in an effort to overcome both the logistical nightmare imposed by COVID-19 and technical difficulties that led to a failed first attempt to create a functional school biodigester.

The version they built at school didn't work, but the others produced enough promising data that the team wants to take a second shot at fixing the biodigester at school once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

"We're hoping once we're able to go back to school we can work on it further and improve it. Maybe our sustainability class can be in charge of making the biodigester actually work so that we can be a little bit more sustainable as a school," says junior Betsy Venegas. "We're also trying to inspire other schools to maybe build biodigesters of their own so we can get a little more eco-friendly as a city."

Sandoval says the process of trying things over and over again until you've got it right is an important part of science.

In fact, it's a critical part of his job at LANL, where he develops instruments for national security that need to survive harsh conditions in outer space, such as space-based nuclear detonation detectors.

"Research and development, and science in general—it's not just an idea and a success," says Sandoval, "it's an idea and it's a prototype and it's a test and it's a measurement. It's a failure. And then you make another prototype and that one does better and you learn from those mistakes."