Fifth Wisconsin KidWind marks long-awaited return of an in-person competition

Webster Team Green prepare their model wind turbine to be tested for energy output in the competition's wind tunnel at KidWind 2022 at the Discovery Building in Madison, Wis., Saturday, February 26, 2022. Chelsea Mamott

On Saturday, February 26, middle and high school students from across Wisconsin and northern Illinois gathered at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Discovery Building for the 2022 KidWind Challenge. Hosted for the fifth time by the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the hands-on challenge engages students in engineering and design as they compete to build the best wind turbine.

Eleven teams of students came prepared with models of small-scale wind turbines they designed and tested their energy output in wind tunnels, all with the goal of achieving the highest voltage of the day. Students got to showcase their engineering and wind energy prowess by presenting their designs in front of a panel of expert judges. And throughout the day, they completed “instant” challenges that tested their teamwork and ability to think on their feet.

A team of students working on the turbine raising challenge
Students from Mauston High School compete in the turbine raising challenge at KidWind 2022 at the Discovery Building on February 26, 2022. Chelsea Mamott

While at UW–Madison, KidWind students and families had the opportunity to hear a presentation by WiscWind, a UW–Madison student organization that participates in the U.S. Department of Energy’s collegiate wind competition. They also heard from representatives of Lakeshore Technical College’s wind turbine technician program and a panel of wind energy career experts. All discussed opportunities for young people interested in careers in wind energy.

Jennifer Franck, an assistant professor of engineering physics at UW–Madison who spoke on the career panel, noted the importance of curiosity and communication skills for students who want to find their way into the energy industry. “I'm looking for students who want to solve problems—asking questions and wanting to figure out how things work,” she said.

This year’s competition, now Gold Certified through the UW–Madison Office of Sustainability’s Green Events Certification Program, marked the return of an in-person event after last year’s virtual competition. For all participants, the event was an opportunity for students to gather and celebrate with their peers and the community in a way they have not been able to in the past two years.

“They get to celebrate their achievements. It’s been a hard year for schools. The fact that they’ve come together and worked hard to create something to bring to the challenge is noteworthy,” said Allison Bender, Wisconsin Energy Institute outreach and events coordinator.

Students brainstorm ways to improve their model wind turbine.
The Madison East team discusses how to improve their wind turbine after testing it in the practice tunnel at KidWInd 2022 at the Discovery Building on February 26, 2022. Chelsea Mamott

The excitement was palpable even for teams participating for the first time. “The kids were anxious to do something hands-on after a couple years of not being able to do large-scale projects. The kids picked it up and ran with it,” said Chelsea Chin, who coached a first-time team from Madison East High School. Chin especially appreciated that KidWind allowed kids to experiment and test their skills by providing a safe space where they could see their creations fail or succeed.

For the kids, it was an opportunity to challenge themselves to grow. “We know enough to know we know very little. We’re ready to come back next year even better,” said Avery Hagen, a ninth grader at Madison East High School.

And for the returning teams, an in-person competition marks a long-awaited occasion. “There’s more excitement to come to the University of Wisconsin to do this,” said Greg Reiva, who coached two St. Thomas middle school teams. “To be able to showcase what they did is really important. The kids really take it to heart.”

For Reiva, KidWind is more than a competition. He views it as an opportunity for kids to chart their own future. “After today, I think they’ve learned that we can make electricity in a different way, and it can be a whole new world for everybody,” he said.