SHEFFIELD — Zane Turner admits he got a few raised eyebrows when he suggested his research idea for last fall's Samsung STEM national competition.

The plight of the Tennessee River battle with the ever-growing invasive zebra mussel wasn't a topic that garnered immediate interest from his seventh-period engineering classmates.

But it was of definite interest to the Samsung Corporation — so much so that company officials recently chose the Sheffield group as the state winner in the Solve for Tomorrow Contest.

The nationwide competition challenged students to inspire change in their communities, to use science, technology, engineering and math skills to develop solutions to complex issues.

Sheffield was one of 50 schools selected. 

The engineering class won $20,000 in technology for the school, as well as the opportunity to compete for a top 10 spot, and a shot at the national title to be announced this spring.

As a state winner, the Sheffield class now must submit a three-minute video that showcases the project from planning to execution, while demonstrating its application to solve the identified issue. 

That video, according to teacher Jamie Smith, the school's Intro to Engineering teacher, is in the planning stages now. It must be submitted next month.

Smith said the group's project, "Zebra mussels and their negative impact on the Tennessee River and TVA Dam," is an issue crying out for attention.

"It's a multilayered project really, and one that's become much bigger than we'd first anticipated," she said. "We're charged to find a solution, and while we don't believe we can rid the river completely of these invasive mussels, we wholeheartedly believe we can make a difference by impacting their spread."

The group's research shows that zebra mussels have been a growing infestation of the Tennessee River since the 1980s with contamination coming from the Great Lakes. The problem originated in eastern Europe during the 1800s. 

Professional fishermen and others who've fished those areas around the Great Lakes have, over time, unknowingly brought zebra mussels and larvae attached to their boats to the Tennessee River.

Several states have addressed the problem, including Idaho, which is zebra mussel free thanks to boat inspections that weed out such problems. 

The mussels are clogging pipe-ways and filtering water, ridding it of food and nutrients that native species of mussels and fish need to survive. 

Financially, the clogged river pipe-ways put a burden on the power supply.

"We have native mussels in the Tennessee (River) right now that are suffocating because of these zebra mussels," Smith said. 

Students are currently creating a survey for fishermen and other key stakeholders they'll use to gather additional information.

The group of students will work with TVA to collect mussels and observe them in a controlled environment to study. They will also involve the district's fourth-graders in the project as they study the behavior of the species.

Ultimately, the high school team will create a trash grate to collect the mussels. It will go on the edge of the river's piping system, where the water is pulled from the river. The students must determine a coating for their device that attracts the zebra mussels.

"We're entering the third phase of this project and we're still generating ideas as to how to create this device," said Turner, a junior who is leading the team, along with his sophomore classmate Austin Walker.

"We've gotten pretty deep into this and we just want to help with this river situation," Turner said. "And we really believe we can. We've learned a lot already."

The group is now sampling various of materials to determine how well each attracts the zebra mussels.

"These students certainly have their work cut out for them, but we're playing to win," Smith said. "It's an amazing opportunity we have to address this problem. Whether we win this competition or not, we're going to continue working for a solution in whatever capacity we can."

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