PAULLINA, Iowa | Forgive Eric Koehlmoos if he's distracted today. He's the lead in the South O'Brien High School play, "Don't Rock the Boat." It opens Friday, closes Saturday.
Koehlmoos then hops on a plane and flies to Washington, D.C., on Sunday, to prepare a presentation at the White House.
Yes, that White House. In Washington, D.C.
Koehlmoos, a senior at South O'Brien High School, may present his award-winning FFA project on ethanol to President Obama on Monday as part of the White House Science Fair.
Heady stuff for a heady senior, whose project was tabbed best in the U.S. four months ago at the National FFA convention in Louisville, Ky. The national honor represented the second national title in two years for the son of Doug and Lisa Koehlmoos, of rural Germantown, Iowa.
The future Kansas State University student studied how a limestone pretreatment regimen on switchgrass and prairie cord grass can boost ethanol production while, at the same time, boosting protein value in distiller's grains, the ethanol byproduct fed to cattle.
He's been tinkering with this project for parts of the past four years and has already earned up to $20,000 in cash and scholarships by presenting variations on this project in science expos, like the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.
He credits officials at Little Sioux Corn Processors, the ethanol plant at nearby Marcus, Iowa, for offering assistance with enzymes and analysis.
"I grind up the grass, add enzymes and water, then heat and ferment it for three days," he says. "Then I distill it and hope I have a pure ethanol sample to be analyzed at Little Sioux Corn Processors."
It is Koehlmoos' hope we can one day grow native grasses for ethanol production while leaving corn for livestock to help feed a growing world population.
South O'Brien FFA adviser Eric Kumm was contacted this week by national FFA leaders who chose Koehlmoos to present at the White House Science Fair. Leaders asked Kumm to make sure Koehlmoos could leave on Saturday.
"I told them that wouldn't be possible because he's got the lead in our school play," Kumm says. "The earliest flight we could get after the play is on Sunday."
So Koehlmoos will fly to Washington, D.C., on Sunday and then head immediately to the White House to set up his presentation. He'll be joined there by his older brother, Andrew Koehlmoos, a South Dakota State University graduate who works in Atlantic, Iowa.
"We've never had a student present at the White House Science Fair," says Kumm. "Eric is representing the national FFA organization, so it's a pretty big deal. I might have been more excited than him."
Oh, Koehlmoos, is pumped. He knows he'll get a chance to share his findings with high-ranking government officials. He's not sure President Obama will be there. He could be, depending on events of the day.
"I know the president was there last year and he visited with kids who were presenting" Kumm says.
"I've been to Washington twice, but this will be my first visit to the White House," Koehlmoos says. "This is a pretty neat honor."
Of course, before he leaves, he's got a boat he won't be rocking as the curtain rises Friday and Saturday. Koehlmoos, the lead, plays captain of the ship in the South O'Brien comedy, the fourth school play in which he's participated.
Until now, that might have been his biggest stage.