By Emily Williams
The Variables don’t just build robots, the team of three Altamont School students is changing the way international coffee company Keurig reduces its carbon footprint.
On March 10, Toby Conn, Noah Warren and Jaye Conn sat around a table and watched five months of hard work culminate in a response from the CEO of Keurig, Brian Kelley.
Keurig’s video was in response to a YouTube video the team released in November in conjunction with an environmental project they created for the Alabama state First Lego League robotics competition.
The theme for this year’s project is “Trash Trek,” and it pushes participating teams to come up with ways to recycle waste.
“We couldn’t think or agree on anything for the project,” Noah said. “One day we were riding in the car and thought, K-Cups, that’s something most people use every day. That is something that people throw away.”
After digging and doing a little research, the team discovered that the K-Cup pods are a serious environmental problem. The bulk of pods are non-recyclable. Enough K-Cups are disposed of each year to circle the earth 10.5 times.
The Variables produced a variety of ways the pods can be recycled, from cooking to crafting.
“Right now, my science class is recycling them,” Jaye said. “We’re growing seedlings in the empty pods.”
Not only did the project wow Altamont, it led to a first place win at the state competition and a ticket to the World FFL Festival. According to the teammates, the “robot” portion of the competition wasn’t the only thing the judges considered point-worthy.
“We didn’t charge our robot long enough, so it kind of died on us during the tournament,” Jaye said. “But, we still won because we showed core values and had an amazing project.”
The core values of the competition are at the heart of the point-earning portion and the most important thing about FLL. Values include teamwork, problem-solving and fun.
“In the state competition order from most to least important,” Noah said, “we said that the most important value was being a team. Everything that we learn, we learn together. Everything that we don’t learn we don’t learn together.”
Jaye, Noah and Toby each agreed that working as a team is the only way they were able to find the fun in robotics.
After seeing The Variables call-to-action video, Kelley and Keurig’s chief sustainability officer, Monique Oxender, sent a message to the three kids about their current and projected efforts to cut down on Keurig K-Cup waste.
In the video response, Kelley told the kids that there are recyclable pod options on the market now, but the company plans on making those more widely available by 2017. In addition, the company has created a five-year plan to make all K-Cups recyclable.
“We want you to know that 2020 is a finishing point, not a starting point,” Kelley said.
The group was floored by the response. The original date for the company’s recyclable initiative had previously been set for 2020.
“The fact that the recyclable pods are going to be more widespread in 2017,” Jaye said, “that’s three years quicker than they had originally planned.”
The team hopes that the response from the international company will help set them apart from the competition at the worlds, but even if they don’t win, they are excited just to be a part of the action.
The Variables will travel to St. Louis on April 27-30 for the world competition, but in the meantime, they are planning a spring break trip to tour the Keurig headquarters.
The group snagged a special invitation to Keurig from the CEO himself and can’t wait to speak with him in person.
“He didn’t say the one thing we wanted him to say,” Noah said after seeing the video. What he wanted the CEO to say was that The Variables inspired the company to take a closer look at the environmental issue, but the team plans to address that when they meet Kelley face-to-face for their tour.
“These kids have some serious grit and perseverance,” Noah’s father, Tye, said. “You would think they would slow down or give up, but they haven’t yet.”
According to the Warrens, it isn’t out of the ordinary for the kids to log 13-hour days of hard work during competition weekends.
“There are times that I’ve seen when a problem occurs and someone starts to fall apart, but instead of giving up the other members rally around them,” Noah’s mother, Emily, said. “It’s amazing to watch the way they support each other.”
Just as there are wins and losses in the coffee market, Kelley reminded the students that there are wins and losses in a competition. With a little teamwork, the team said they hope to succeed just as they believe Keurig will with its newest sustainability initiative.