By Gwen Aviles

A group of Latino high school students who recently immigrated to the U.S. are being nationally recognized for coming up with a device to help prevent natural gas explosions after experiencing a tragedy that uprooted their community.

Last September, the Merrimack Valley gas explosions struck Lawrence, Massachusetts, destroying neighborhood homes and killing one person. Leonel Rondon, 18, was killed when one of the homes' explosions toppled a chimney onto a car where he was sitting. Rondon had also attended Lawrence High School.

The gas explosions forced 30,000 residents to evacuate their homes — including Lawrence High School students and their families. Some of the teens were part of the Engaging Newcomers in Language and Content Education (ENLACE) Academy.

Enlace, which means link in Spanish, is an educational support program for students who have lived in the U.S. for less than two years and who are still learning English, according to Allison Balter, the program's founding principal.

Enlace students were saddened and confused by the incident, especially since many had recently moved from several Latin American countries. Shaddai Vargas, an art teacher at the school, came up with a project to help them better understand how over-pressurized gas lines can cause fires.

Under Vargas' guidance, 13 students from the program, which has about 200 participants, developed a prototype.

“We saw this problem, high gas pressure in outdated pipelines, which is not only a problem in our community, but a problem nationwide,” Vargas said. “We used a 3D printer to create the most cost-efficient and effective design.”

When high pressure gas enters the students' device, which is attached to the pipe, it is blocked from traveling any farther, one student explained in the group’s video submission to the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, a nationwide contest that challenges public school teachers and students to come up with STEM-based solutions to problems afflicting their communities.

Vargas said that in order to create the device, the students also learned about fossil fuels, fracking and gas safety measures and regulations. They met with several industry and political leaders, including Rep. Marcos Devers and representatives from Columbia Gas.

According to Michele Mosa, senior manager of Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, around 2,000 schools submitted their projects to the contest.

The students at Lawrence High School have recently been selected as one of 10 finalists who will head to New York City in April to pitch their projects to judges who will declare the national winner.

“It’s very exciting and very important to me,” Maria C. Acevedo, a freshman who worked on the project, said. “I learned I can help the community and improve things and we can be the change.”

The students have brought pride to a city with a rich immigrant history. It was first populated by European immigrants who came to America to work in textile mills. As of 2018, nearly 80 percent of the town's population is Latino, according to census data.

The Enlace program reflects Lawrence's population, which is majority Dominican, but also includes those hailing from Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries, Balter explained.

As finalists, the students have already won $50,000 for technology and classroom supplies. If they win the national prize, their school will be awarded $100,000.

“It’s great to have the money to do better and to help people in our community,” Mario R. Mejía, another freshman who worked on the project, said.

Though the money is a compelling incentive, the chance to make a difference and excel is what most excited Vargas and the students.

“It was really big for us. We couldn’t believe it,” Vargas said about the group. “English is our second language, so there was a challenge because of language and all the knowledge we didn’t have.”

“I’m proud of myself and my classmates,” Acevedo said. “We have the opportunity to help the community have something better, and we learned English. We now know we can do anything.”

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