Question: the Hippie Pandas are: a) a new-wave metal band that prominently features a harpsichordist, b) a team of budding scientists who created a way for Nicaraguan women to pasteurize milk, or c) a group of pandas that smoked a ton of bamboo in the 60s and now follow the remaining Allman Brother whenever he goes on tour? If you guessed "b" that means you have at least enough reading comprehension skills to understand the clue in the title of this post. Congratulations!
Dave Banks, writing in his GeekDad blog for Wired, offers the Hippie Pandas as a ray of hope for anyone who worries that America has fallen woefully behind in STEM education. The all-girl team from Rochester, NY earned top honors at the FIRST 2012 Championship last week in St. Louis, where thousands of science-savvy kids gathered to compete with robotics projects and keep hope alive that America will not slip gradually back into a Stone Age of crude technology.
Though STEM proficiency is expected of the older competitors who've already been self-selected by their interest in science and math-based fields, Banks observed that many of FIRST's younger participants showcased projects that greatly impressed the judges, including a Hong Kong team's rotating sushi table that used infrared light to judge when sushi was liable to induce food poisoning. The Hippie Pandas, however, didn't concern themselves with the epicurean dilemmas of the bourgeoisie — they tackled a real problem, like the fact that, according to one of the girls' Peace Corps cousins, women in Nicaragua often have to drink unpasteurized milk and as a result experience a higher rate of miscarriages and disease.
With the help of their coach from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the girls created a sunlight reflector using aluminum foil placed over a woven mat that would heat the milk to the 145 ºF necessary to kill any harmful microbial organisms. The aluminum covered mat was then placed in a black container, which helps absorb heat. The Hippie Pandas initially used a thermometer to determine when the milk reached the target temperature, but, realizing that Nicaraguan women might not have access to such an instrument, developed a clever alternative: they covered the container with bee's wax, which, when fully melted, shows when milk has reached 145 degrees.
Pretty awesome, huh? The Hippie Pandas' device is already being used in Nicaragua and the girls were approached at the FIRST Championship and asked to implement it in at least one other country. Three cheers for science!