Independent Study: Passion & Discovery

Albert Kyi, a senior at Grace, is still working on his sophomore independent project. To be more precise, he is working on a second prototype of his original project, a Direct Air Capture machine that pulls carbon dioxide from the air as a way to reduce greenhouse gases in the battle against climate change. Albert has continued to refine and improve his machine because, in the face of what is arguably the most pressing problem humans have ever faced, he believes scientists and engineers can save the world.
In tenth grade, every student spends much of the year conceiving of and developing an independent project, which has come to be known as “March Madness” because of the two-week period in March dedicated to the project. As early as the start of freshman year, many students begin thinking about what topic they want to explore, and they often start the process with decided enthusiasm about a particular idea. However, March Madness is not only about passion, though that is sometimes an important part of it, but the process is also about discovery. Any small spark of an idea can be turned into a great project, and it often happens. Student projects have ranged from writing a full-length novel to developing a cosmetics line for girls of color to training a therapy dog to forging a long sword based on medieval blacksmithing techniques, to name just a few.
The foremost goal of the year-long project is for students to practice the process of inquiry. Projects often start out amorphous, or as just a small idea, and the March Madness supervisor assigned to each student works with him or her to learn the necessary phases of a long-term project. Essentially, they are helping students figure out how to get from a great idea to a finished product. Ms. Laurence, Dean of Student Life, oversees the program and says that supervisors stress for students that, “The process is about staying open, being flexible, and learning how to slow down and listen. It’s essential not to assume you know all of the answers from the beginning because often projects evolve in unexpected ways.”
March Madness leverages resources across the school. In addition to their project advisor, students connect with experts in the field of their project, primarily through an Alumni Expert Evening where students work in small groups to pitch their ideas to and get feedback from Grace alums experienced in their field of interest. Faculty also assist students in identifying other experts from within the community as needed.
At the end of the project, students often report that a key takeaway for them is that they can easily speak about their specific project and the process they went through because it is something they have a personal interest in, newly found expertise, and they have received constructive feedback from the faculty. If a particular project grows into something bigger that a student wants to pursue, he or she can work with a faculty member to create an independent study during eleventh or twelfth grade. Having two more years to study a particular issue or put into use the process of inquiry is exactly why March Madness happens in tenth grade and not during the later high school years. The structure of the March Madness program allows a passionate, engaged student to identify an interest and take flight – a student like Albert.
Back when he was generating ideas, Albert knew he wanted to design a project that would tackle the threat of climate change. “Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, cause global warming, and in turn, severe storms and catastrophic damage to our planet, so I wanted to build a machine that would get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”
Albert had a big idea, but he was not sure how to execute it, so he sent an email to the country’s leading expert on Direct Air Capture (DAC), Dr. Klaus Lackner, the Director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. To Albert’s surprise, Dr. Lackner emailed him back right away. “Even though I was a little hopeful, I wasn’t expecting that he would answer quickly, simply because he was so important, and I was only a high school student.” Dr. Lackner generously offered his time to Albert. “I was really amazed by how open he was to teaching me about his work. We set up an interview, and we spoke for over an hour and a half.”
After speaking with Dr. Lackner, Albert contacted Allen Wright, the Executive Director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions. With the help of Dr. Lackner and Mr. Wright, Albert designed and built a functioning DAC machine. You can read a summary of his research and the full specs of his machine online – www.      
At the same time, Albert attended the Expert Evening at Grace and connected with three people who work in science and helped him think through his project. Dr. Jan Beyea ’53, a consultant and science researcher talked with Albert about a future career in science. “Dr. Beyea was really knowledgeable and we had great conversations about working in science policy.” Albert got a key design idea for his DAC machine from Alex Chatham ’97, an industrial designer, and current Grace parent and environmental law professor Katy Kuh connected Albert with the most current information about direct air capture legislation to help him think through the legal and tax implications of his project.
After Albert finished his work and presented to his classmates, faculty and parents, his project was featured on Arizona State University’s website. “I felt really honored. I knew that my machine wasn’t perfect, but I worked endlessly to make sure that it functioned the way I wanted it to. I invested a lot of my time and energy to the point where it was practically my child.”
Albert had already been tremendously successful but wanted to keep going. He entered his DAC machine into the Michael Perelstein Discover Your Passion Competition and was awarded the grand prize of $5,000. He used part of the funds to travel to Arizona and California to present his machine to professors and graduate students and get feedback. The rest of the funds were put toward building a second prototype of his machine. Albert was also accepted to attend the International Conference on Negative Carbon Emissions at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. With the help of Grace, Albert flew to Sweden, his first trip abroad, and was the youngest conference attendee by seven years.
At the conference, Albert found himself networking with the foremost experts in the world on negative carbon emissions, including those working on Direct Air Capture. The scientists in attendance were debating two big questions: what is the best way to capture carbon at scale and what do you do with the carbon once it is pulled from the atmosphere. With a strategy for capturing carbon that Albert believes can be scaled, he has turned his focus toward the second question.
Albert designed his second prototype to capture carbon dioxide, then have plants absorb it so that he can study what happens to plants when they absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide. This process, carbon dioxide utilization, is a leading idea in the field, but the effects of what happens to the exposed plants are somewhat unknown. In early research, it does appear that most plants will grow much faster when exposed to large quantities of carbon dioxide, but there is also some evidence that they do not produce key nutrients, which could have reverberating effects down the line, including damage to important food sources for humans. Albert hopes to publish his findings with the help of teachers at Grace.
With tentative plans to study chemical engineering in college, Albert has recently been asking himself whether he is more interested in the policy or the science of climate change. “To address the problem, new technologies and policy have to work in parallel. In the U.S. there are major political and legislative hurdles to overcome that don’t exist in Europe. That many people here still deny global warming gets in the way of finding actual solutions.”
Albert understands the urgency of the issue. “The deadline to hit net zero carbon emissions is getting closer. The importance of combatting global warming gets put aside because it is hard for people and politicians to imagine the consequences of something 50 years away, but the consequences are real. Doing nothing is a risk we can’t take.”