17-Year-Old Jonny Cohen Dreams of Making School Buses More Efficient

Teenage changemaker sees solution to wasteful fuel consumption of America's bus fleet.
The face of change. (Photo: Youthblogspot.com)
Aug 28, 2012· 1 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

When Jonny Cohen was 12 years old, he had an idea to revolutionize the way students get to class.

His vision was to take clunky old school buses and transform them into sleeker, aerodynamic vehicles that could curb fuel consumption, reduce carbon emissions, and save money for thousands of American schools that rely on buses to transport their students.

School buses are remarkably inefficient, getting an average of just seven miles per gallon, according to the American School Bus Association, compared to a private car, which can average over 20 mpg. Overall, the nation’s school buses use more than 800 million gallons of gas each year.

MORE: 10 Rapidly Vanishing Environmental Wonders

Jonny’s idea was to attach plexiglass shields to the front of the buses that would redirect airflow, making the bus more aerodynamic, thus reducing drag and saving gas.

Not every 12-year-old thinks critically about aerodynamics, but Jonny had just taken a summer course about it at Northwestern University. He brought the idea to his sister and his science teachers, who gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Five years later, 17-year-old Jonny and his organization, the GreenShields Project, are well on their way to achieving their dream.

Their current version of the green shield was designed with help from Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute, and is more like a “ski jump shaped hat installed on the roof of the bus,” reports ClimateWire. Tests show that the shield “improves fuel economy 10 to 20 percent.”

For their efforts to transform the school bus, the GreenShields Project has won several national grant contests, including a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh grant, and Jonny’s work has been featured on the White House blog.

The shields are currently getting a trial run with an environmentally-conscious bus company called Cook-Illinois Corp. One last hurdle—obtaining permits from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation—remains, before the team can produce the shields for the mass market.

With any luck, the demand for these consumption-reducing shields will be sky high.

Nearly 500,000 school buses carry 25 million children each day, making the school bus industry the largest form of mass transit in the nation.

Because half of all U.S. school children take buses to school, the amount of students (and schools) that could benefit from GreenShields is enormous.

Until then, the GreenShields group is dedicated to raising awareness and encouraging other young innovators.

In a blog on the Huffington Post, Jonny offered some advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs: “I hope that GreenShields inspires kids to use science to help the environment. We only have one Earth – we should cherish it. Even if you are only 13 years old, you can be a changemaker…I look back and remember that it’s OK to think of different ideas. Don’t be afraid to share them with an adult, and ask your friends and teachers for help. I always say try to see things the way they could be, not the way they are.”

What do you think about Jonny's efforts? Have you heard of another super green teenager? If so, tell us in the comments.