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FARMINGTON — A scientific project mounted by a graduating Navajo Preparatory School student designed to help her grandparents has led to a visit to the White House and a NASA internship.

Kelly Charley, 18, has been designing and building a solar heating system since her freshmen year in Yolanda Flores' science class. Her goal was to build a solar hot water heater that would heat a home, especially a hogan, that might not have access to electricity or running water.

Charley's love of science was awakened by her experience of living with her grandparents and mother Diedra Benally in Sweetwater, Ariz.,

She wanted to build the solar heater after becoming concerned about the emissions and particles from wood- or coal-burning stoves that could be dangerous to inhale. She also wanted the system to be self-sufficient so it would not be an additional cost for a home.

Charley and her mother often worked together to address issues that flared up on the ranch and farm they called home.

"I think growing up and being around her all the time helped me be able to connect the dots," Charley said about her love of science. "The only way I could understand the world and feel most comfortable with it was by making those connections."

Charley's prototype of the system features a solar panel installed on the roof of a hogan. Antifreeze installed in tubes inside the panel heats up from sunlight and is sent through polytubes into a metal coil inside a bucket of water located in the hogan.

The heat energy warms the bucket of water, which dissipates the heat across the home. The solar panel also powers a 12-volt pump to circulate the fluid in the system.

Charley's project won first-place awards at the San Juan Regional Science and Engineering Fair and the Navajo Nation Science Fair during her freshman year in 2014.

It was also the first of two years she competed at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, where she was finalist in 2014.

"There was a purpose behind what I was doing," Charley said. "Rather than just doing an experiment to do an experiment."

She was one of nearly 100 students invited to participate in the White House Science Fair in March 2015. Charley also was invited to appear on The Weather Channel while visiting Washington, D.C., for that science fair.

She attributed much of her success to Flores, who she said pushes and encourages students to do their best. Flores said Charley has accomplished her goals because of her motivation, intelligence and charisma.

"She has perseverance to finish things," Flores said.

When asked about the recognition she has received for her project, which includes a story that appeared on the cable TV news channel Fusion, Charley dismissed the attention.

"I did all of this because I care and wanted something for my grandparents," Charley said. "I was doing this for a purpose, and all those other things just came along with it."

Charley also keeps busy as a member of Navajo Prep girls soccer team and as a member of the school's Naat'áanii Youth Council.

During her time on the council, she helped pushed for the approval of the Healthy Diné Community Wellness Development Project by the Navajo Nation Council. The revenue generated by the 2-percent tax imposed on foods that have minimal to no nutritional value helps fund projects to promote healthy lifestyles at chapters on the Navajo Nation.

She was also one of 125 students to receive a $20,000 scholarship from the Coca‑Cola Scholars Foundation. Nearly 86,000 students nationwide applied for the scholarship.

After graduation, Charley plans to attend Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and study electrical engineering and teaching. She hopes to work at NASA as an electrical engineer and teach in the field at a college or university in the Four Corners region.

Her first step on that journey starts this summer with a two-month internship at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Charley believes she'll work in a laboratory that focuses on developing and programming small satellites.

"I'm really excited for that," Charley said. "I'm hoping to learn a lot this summer."

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

2017 high school graduation ceremonies

• Farmington High School: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ricketts Park, Fairgrounds Road and Vine Avenue in Farmington

• Rocinante High School: 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St. 

• Career Prep High School: 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center, U.S. Highway 64 in Shiprock

• Vista Nueva High School: 7 p.m. Wednesday in the multi-purpose room at Aztec High School, 500 E. Chaco St. in Aztec

• Kirtland Central High School: 7 p.m. Thursday at Bronco Stadium, 550 County Road 6100 in Kirtland

• Piedra Vista High School: 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Ricketts Park, Fairgrounds Road and Vine Avenue in Farmington 

• Charlie Y. Brown High School: 10 a.m. Friday in the auditorium at Bloomfield High School, 924 S. Bloomfield Blvd.

• New Mexico Virtual Academy: 1 p.m. Friday at the Turano Chrisman Performing Arts Theater at Piedra Vista High School, 5700 College Blvd. in Farmington

• Aztec High School: 7 p.m. Friday at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium, 455 N. Light Plant Road in Aztec 

• Bloomfield High School: 7 p.m. Friday at Bobcat Stadium, 520 N. First St. in Bloomfield 

• Newcomb High School: 7 p.m. Friday at Skyhawk Gym, U.S. Highway 491 in Newcomb 

• Shiprock High School: 10 a.m. Saturday at the Chieftain Pit, U.S. Highway 64 in Shiprock

• Shiprock Northwest High School: 10 a.m. Saturday at the Northwest High School gym, on Piñon Drive behind the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock 

• Navajo Preparatory School: 6 p.m. Saturday at the Navajo Prep football field, 1220 W. Apache St. in Farmington

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