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Forsyth County students become first American winners in international German economic competition
Research aims to help younger generation better understand geothermal energy
Young Economic Summit
From the left, Olivia Philpot, Amelia Pettersson, Katherine Yang and Matthew Gaybba competed in the Young Economic Summit hosted in Germany. Philpot holds up a phone showing Elise Kopp, another competitor who called in from Florida.

A group of five South Forsyth High School students recently won out at the Young Economic Summit, or YES!, competition hosted virtually in Germany as one of only three competing American teams.

South Forsyth German teacher Jonas Strecker said the YES! competition is a joint project of the ZBW - Leibniz Information Centre for Economics and the Joachim Herz Stiftung and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in Germany.

According to the competition website, YES! was created to give high school students a platform to discuss creative solutions to global issues in areas such as economy, policy, society and environment.

Through the competition, students are given the opportunity to choose from a list of topics in those areas, conduct research with the help of experts and come up with a possible solution. The intensive work leads up to a two-day conference where students are able to present their ideas to judges, other student groups and leaders in business, politics and academia.

This was the first year schools from the U.S. were chosen to take part in the international competition, and Strecker said he and his students were honored to be able to participate.

Five students from South Forsyth’s top-rated German program participated — Olivia Philpot, Elise Kopp, Amelia Pettersson, Katherine Yang and Matthew Gaybba.

When presented with the list of topics for this year’s competition, the group decided to focus on geothermal energy, a clean, renewable type of energy created through heat found within the Earth’s crust.

“We asked for this topic because we think that climate change and environmental topics are very important and prevalent in society right now, and we wanted to help change something,” Yang said.

To get started, Yang said the group created a survey to send out to community members to get some of their thoughts on geothermal energy, knowing that results could give them some idea of how to create more acceptance around the use of geothermal energy.

They realized through those results, however, that many simply don’t understand what geothermal energy is or how it works.

With this in mind, the group started working toward their solution, which they decided was to educate the younger generation on geothermal energy and its uses. This way, when they grow up and become leaders in their communities, they know how it could be useful and healthy for the environment.

“[We want] to introduce them early on to geothermal energy so that they can, having been more exposed to it, make a difference in the future,” Pettersson said.

To do this, the group came up with an idea for a GeoBus, a travelling workshop with hands-on activities, modules and experiments for kids to have experience with and understand geothermal energy. The bus can stop at different elementary schools in a community, giving students a day of fun and learning.

The group also developed a prototype of an app, called Pocket Power, which provides information on geothermal energy and dispels myths that it might be harmful to the environment. Yang explained that parents could use the app to learn more and provide even more information to their kids.

“All of this is to prepare the younger generations because we believe they are the leaders of our future,” Yang said.

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Young Economic Summit
Katherine Yang presents at the Young Economic Summit, or YES!, final competition.

The app also includes an interactive game and feature that allows schools and hospitals interested in having a geothermal system installed for their building to connect with geothermal companies, and the app provides users with a cost analysis through the process.

Through this months-long process of researching and coming together with these ideas, Pettersson said the group had the opportunity to talk virtually with scientists from Germany who specialize in geothermal energy. With their help, the students said they were able to learn so much more about the topic.

“I think it gave us some perspective because the scientists we were talking to were mostly from Germany, and in Germany, renewable energy is definitely more prevalent than here in the United States,” Kopp said.

Being one of only three American teams competing, Kopp said she felt a little bit of extra pressure in representing the U.S. where solutions surrounding environmental topics have to begin with convincing citizens to support cleaner energy sources.

“We are the first American schools taking part in this,” Pettersson said. “So we’re paving the way for other American schools to be able to take part in it, so it was really important for us to make a good impression on them.”

But after finally finishing their work and presenting at the virtual summit at the end of September, the students felt a wave of relief when they began to hear positive feedback from participating experts.

Gaybba said one competition leader even suggested that they apply for federal funding to make the GeoBus and Pocket Power app a reality.

Just a few days after the conference was over, it was announced that the South Forsyth team won the overall 2021 YES! Competition. After months of work, Strecker said the students were “over the moon” about the news.

“I feel so honored that we have such an amazing German program at our school that we get opportunities like this,” Kopp said.

Overall, Yang and Philpot agreed that taking part in YES! inspired them to continue with similar projects, even if they might be time consuming or difficult.

Despite being unable to travel to Germany due to the pandemic and not having a course grade attached to the assignment, Yang said she felt motivated through the competition simply by knowing how much of an impact their work could have.

“We have the power to influence other people in a positive way,” Yang said. “I think that’s really empowering, and other kids should feel the same kind of inspiration within themselves to have an impact on other people.”