Between cell phones, music, gaming, and all the other distractions young people have today, tackling the world’s climate crisis doesn’t seem like it would be a priority for a teenager.
But Dakota Perry, a 15-year-old award-winning inventor and environmentalist from Alabama, isn’t like many of her teenage peers. When she was 10 years old, she helped her dad build a working drone and still regularly helps him in his woodworking shop and on various projects around the house.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been someone who likes to figure out how different things work,” Perry told Reckon. “I help build stuff a lot.”
Her latest creation helps clear trash from rivers and streams. She came up with the idea after watching trash accumulate in the creek behind her dad’s house and wondered if there was a smart way to clean it up without getting soaking wet and dirty.
“I started doing research on different automated methods to get trash out of the water,” she said. “And I came across the great bubble barrier in Amsterdam.”
There isn’t a huge difference between her version and the one she found in Amsterdam, the capital city of the Netherlands. Compressed air is pumped through a pipe placed diagonally along the bed of a river or stream. Holes in the perforated pipe allow the air to escape creating a curtain of bubbles that prevents the trash and other small floating or submerged items from going further downstream.
The diagonal placement of the bubble curtain and the water’s natural movement direct trash to a catchment area where it can be collected and disposed of. But the difference between the two versions is Perry’s design connects the accumulated trash to a conveyor belt that automatically takes it to a nearby dumpster.
Importantly, her version is more sustainable. Solar power is used to operate the conveyor belt and a waterwheel, which uses the river current to spin and create electricity, powers the air compressor. And if the sun isn’t shining, as is sometimes the case on the rainy Gulf Coast, a separate waterwheel can also operate the conveyor belt. The version in Amsterdam uses fossil fuels to operate.
“I realized that the way they ran the bubble barrier wasn’t the best,” she said. “It was causing smoke and more air pollution, which made me want to figure out a way to get my bubble barrier working in an environmentally friendly way.”
Her design won first prize in the March 2022 Mobile Regional Science and Engineering Fair in the Environmental Engineering section. That got her an invite to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, held in mid-May. Her design received a Judges’ Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But Perry is no stranger to science fairs.
In 2021, while in middle school, she won the Best in Fair at the regional event for a project that showed how tsunamis could be slowed down, helping save people and infrastructure close to the coasts.
That got her entry to the international science fair, where she placed 4th in the engineering mechanics category.
To prove her theory, she created a tsunami generator in her dad’s backyard and observed how different barriers would absorb and subsequently slow down waves. One of the barriers was based on the Fibonacci Spiral, a 13th-century mathematical system with roots dating back to 200 B.C.
At the core of Perry’s designs is an urge to help people and solve the planet’s climate problems.
“I believe that climate change and pollution will be the entire downfall of the earth as we know it if we don’t do something now,” she said. “A lot of people are getting sick in the world because of pollution. The weather is changing; the temperature is getting warmer. Glaciers are melting and causing sea levels to rise.”
“In some places, people can’t even see the stars, and that’s one of my favorite things to do,” she added.
Perry isn’t sure which college she wants to attend just yet, preferring to focus on her upcoming senior year at Davidson High School in Mobile.
“I just kind of go with the flow,” she said. “I don’t like overwhelming myself with all the possibilities, but I do think that I’d like to be an engineer one day.”
And if things don’t work out in engineering, Perry is happy to figure out how people work instead.
“An FBI criminal profiler would be my second choice,” she added.