By: Russ Campbell, SMT Center
Local Tech Wire STEM News

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Matthew Miller of Elon found himself in a unique position on Monday.

The 18-year-old was seated on a stage just left of President Barack Obama in the White House State Dining Room as he participated this week in the White House Science Fair, which was a scheduled part of the president’s “Educate-to-Innovate” program that seeks to raise U.S. students’ achievement in science and math.

“So we welcome championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories,” the president said as Miller sat attentively behind him. “I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fairs and robotic contests and math competitions.”

A senior at Western Alamance High School, Miller won a Senior Silver Award at the 2010 I-SWEEEP, the International Sustainable World (Energy, Engineering, and Environment) Project Olympiad for his project on reducing noise levels on wind turbines – project he worked on as a junior in high school.

He also won first place in the North Carolina Junior Science and Humanities Competition in the Engineering Division and second in the National Junior Science and Humanities Competition in the Engineering Division.

“I was sitting on the front row and he came out of a door behind me,” Miller said. “And, he was right there. He shook my hand and asked me how I was doing. I was trying not to fall over.”

Miller’s father saw an article in a Duke University magazine about how the bumps on a whale’s flippers improve its efficiency. He brought this to his son’s attention since traditionally engineers have designed wings and blades on wind turbines to have a steady airflow. The bumps, they thought, would create an unsteady flow.

“My brother and I built a wind tunnel in our garage and tested it out,” Miller said. “I tried to make them quieter with out removing the efficiency.”

Miller took a medium-sized wind turbine and added a row of bumps along the edge of the blades.

“What the bumps do is create a vortex, a spiral flow, along the blade that keeps the air attached to the blade longer,” he said. “The longer you can keep air attached, the more lift you create.”

While the amount of decibels is the same, the sound produced is more appealing to the ear.

Alisa Wickliff, the assistant director for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at UNC-Charlotte, worked with Miller during the North Carolina Science Fair.

“What I liked about his project was the community engagement aspect,” she explained. “By reducing the sound you could potentially move these turbines closer to urban environments to generate alternative energy.”

Even though his was not one of the projects displayed, Miller was far from disappointed.

“Attending the White House Science Fair was an amazing experience,” Miller said. “I did get to shake the president’s hand twice, and he congratulated me, and asked me if I was enjoying my day. It really was a great honor to be there.”

While waiting in line to enter the White House, Miller met other science education luminaries including Bill Nye The Science Guy and the hosts of the popular television show Mythbusters.

The White House Science Fair kicked off a week that concludes with the USA Science & Engineering Festival scheduled on the National Mall and throughout the D.C. area this weekend.

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