TSA photo

Eryn McKendree (left), a member of the Richland High School Technology Student Association team, talks Wednesday, June 30, 2021, about a water filtration system that won a national title this year, alongside teammates Leah Chung and Margaret Orr.

The Richland High School Technology Student Association team of Eryn McKendree, Leah Chung and Margaret Orr took the national title for engineering design June 25 during an annual conference.

“I didn’t believe it,” McKendree said.

“I kind of questioned if that was actually our names.”

The group of rising juniors found out separately because the competition was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was canceled last year.

“I had to take a minute and step back,” Chung said.

Her teammate, McKendree, is the one who broke the news during a break that day while both were involved with the school’s musical.

Orr was notified by her sister and said she was happy about the win.

The trio submitted a reverse osmosis water filtration system this year based on need in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and built a model to demonstrate how their project worked.

By drawing water from the Congo River and pushing it through a three-layer filtration apparatus, dangerous viruses and bacteria can be removed and the water made safe to drink.

McKendree, Chung and Orr said they designed the system with filtering, maintenance and cleaning in mind.

Their concept moves the water through a canister full of woodchips, pebbles and sand, another with activated charcoal and the third containing a reverse osmosis membrane before the liquid is deposited into a large vat with faucets.

McKendree noted the need for the system to be simple due to the residents of the Congo not having access to more advanced water-cleaning methods.

The TSA National Conference began June 1, and throughout the event, teams from across the country competed against one another on the middle and high school levels in more than 60 science, technology, engineering and mathematics contests.

The Richland team had to submit a video of themselves discussing their project, then participate in an interview with the judges before finding out if they’d move on.

“It was definitely a new experience overall,” Chung said.

It was her first year competing at the national level. McKendree had done so three times before and Orr had been to the event twice.

The trio agreed that the virtual aspect made the challenge harder than others, but that didn’t diminish the fun they had.

After the interviews are completed, the top 12 teams were named, followed by the top 10, and finally the top three before the winner is announced.

“You can’t even express the time and effort the students put into it,” middle school TSA adviser Bryan Spangler said. “They did a fantastic job.”

His high school counterpart agreed, noing that the students “have to be all in to make it this far.”

The advisers added that they were proud of all the Richland teams this year, and although they would have preferred to have competed in person, the national title is still a special reward.

Richland has won the award five previous times.

In addition to the engineering win, McKendree, Chung and Caitlyn Mathis placed second in architectural design and McKendree took second in photographic technology. Brian Zheng, Mackenzie Hawkins and Sania Khan placed second in middle school data science and analytics; that group and Chris Geiser placed fifth for middle school biotechnology design and eighth in middle school off the grid.

Melanie Gerko, Michelle Zheng, Mathis and Orr placed 10th in biotechnology design, as well.

To watch a demonstration of the water filtration system and explore the project further visit https://enginneringteam1425.wixsite.com/enginnering-design.

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5054. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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