Hundreds of wind turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, dot the hills of northeastern Oregon.

So naturally some of the region’s young people are interested in wind power. On Thursday, some of them tested hand-designed wind turbines in a wind tunnel at the KidWind Challenge at Riverside High School in Boardman. The two teams whose turbines produced the most milliwatts of power would qualify to compete at the national competition in Houston in May.

Gathered in one corner of Riverside’s wrestling room, the five members of the Nerd Herd made last-second adjustments on their miniature wind tower, which had wooden blades, wires, plastic gears and a wooden tower and base. The all-freshman team from Heppner consisted of Hannah Finch, Roen Waite, Kylie Boor, Kamron Drury and Edward Ellsworth.

The young engineers eyed the wind tunnel across the room. The 48-by-48-inch enclosure was open on one side with a bank of four fans at the opposite end. The tunnel simulates a windspeed of about 13 mph.

All the preparation would come down to two 60-second sessions in the tunnel and an interview with judges.

The team’s turbine design had evolved from one developed by Waite and Finch for last year’s middle school competition. This newer model, said Finch, has more power.

“We changed our gear ratio,” she said. “It had a ratio of 8-to-1. Now it’s 64-to-1.”

The Nerd Herd competed against eight teams, two others from Heppner, one from Irrigon and five from Riverside.

When the time came, Waite gingerly set the turbine into the tunnel. He and his five fellow wind engineers stood back and hoped for a good run.

Jon Roschke, regional program manager for KidWind, oversaw the wind tunnel.

“Hit the juice,” he directed.

The fans whirred. After 60 seconds, Roschke powered down.

The Nerd Herd turbine had produced almost 30,000 milliwatts in the first run. Not bad, but they hoped for more next time. The team retreated to their table to tweak the blade angles. Half an hour later they tried again. This time, the number dropped to 25,000 milliwatts. Their first run would stand.

The five spent about 10 minutes answering questions from two judges about design, materials, team dynamics and other topics.

Riverside science teacher Rhonda Brennan pinballed from one team to another during the competition, answering questions and sending teams to the judges. The teacher says the KidWind program is a good fit for Morrow County.

“I feel like we’re surrounded by wind turbines,” Brennan said.

She said the students learn some invaluable skills while designing their wind towers.

“They do a lot of problem solving and analytical thinking that will follow them everywhere into all parts of their lives.”

Brennon has shepherded two teams, one high school and one middle school, to national competitions in the past two years.

“It was very mind blowing,” she said. “A huge learning experience.”

Finally, it was time to announce the winners. The five members of Nerd Herd did fist pumps when they heard their team’s name called. Waite held the wind turbine-shaped trophy aloft as everyone gathered around. A team from Riverside (Victor Bucio, Zac McDonough, Adilene Perales, Zenia Pena and Jocelyn Rodriguez) came in second and also qualified for nationals.

Afterward, Roschke looked happy. The variety of designs had impressed him. The students had fashioned turbine blades from plastic, tin, paper and wood in a variety of shapes. They had shown imagination in their designs.

“The word that comes to mind is gutsy,” he said. “There were some gutsy designs.”

He said the wind tunnel provides a realistic test for the young designers.

“They are dealing with serious windspeed,” he said.

EDP Renewables North America, which owns the Rattlesnake Road and Wheat Field Wind Farms outside of Arlington, sponsored the event. During the afternoon, junior high school teams from Riverside competed.

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