A group of Northland students say coming third in a global contest for their efforts to combat a smothering pest plant is proof that young people really can make a difference.

The Tradescantia Terminators, made up of six Year 11 and 12 students at Kerikeri High, returned to school on Monday after competing in the World Community Problem Solving Championships at the University of Massachusetts, USA.

More than 2000 students from 14 countries took part with the Kerikeri team up against 25 other projects in the environmental and health concerns category.

During the five-day contest the team created a display, were interviewed by judges and presented their project to the public.

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The Kerikeri girls were shocked to be among the top three teams called up to the prizegiving stage in a ''massive stadium''.

Charlie Potter, 16, said it was ''a pretty amazing experience''.

''It felt like all our hard work paid off,'' she said.

With so many other competitors, some already at university, 16-year-old Jeany Kim said they never expected to win.

Jeany Kim, of the problem-solving group Tradescantia Terminators, releases a biocontrol beetle beside Kerikeri's Wairoa Stream in 2017. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Jeany Kim, of the problem-solving group Tradescantia Terminators, releases a biocontrol beetle beside Kerikeri's Wairoa Stream in 2017. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Faith Hohepa, 16, said the significance of their project only started to sink in after their US experience.

''I felt really proud to come from little Kerikeri and New Zealand, then going to America and placing third in this big competition. It lets young people know they can make a difference if they have goals and are motivated to reach them.''

Charlotte Gamble, 17, said without help, support and sponsorship from the Kerikeri community the team couldn't have got to the US — and they wouldn't even have had a project.

The project centred on a walkway along the Wairoa Stream in Kerikeri where a thick mat of the invasive plant tradescantia carpeted the ground, preventing regeneration of native bush.

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Researching possible solutions they learned about a beetle which eats only tradescantia and comes, like the plant itself, from South America.

The students devised systems for catching, releasing and monitoring the tiny beetles and ran a series of public workshops to show others how to use the beetles for tradescantia control.

The Tradescantia Terminators, from left, Faith Hohepa, 16, Charlotte Gamble, 17, Jeany Kim, 16, Charlie Potter, 16, and Emilia Finer, 14. Absent: Emilie Jones, 15. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The Tradescantia Terminators, from left, Faith Hohepa, 16, Charlotte Gamble, 17, Jeany Kim, 16, Charlie Potter, 16, and Emilia Finer, 14. Absent: Emilie Jones, 15. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Emilia Finer, 14, said they were now training kids at Kerikeri Primary School to ensure the project would continue. They were working on an app to raise awareness of the pest plant, and fielding inquiries about the biocontrol beetle from schools and landowners around the country.

The students were accompanied on the 16-day trip, which also took in Disneyland, Boston and New York, by coach Sandra Leaming and teacher Roz Clent.

Leaming said it was the first time a senior team from Kerikeri had travelled to the world finals due to the difficulty of juggling schoolwork at senior level with the demands of the competition.

In 2012 a middle division team from Kerikeri High placed second at the world champs for a project encouraging the use of te reo.