The Jewish American Teen Who's Making School Buses 'Green'

While still in school, Jonny Cohen started GreenShields, a project that aims to design an aerodynamic Plexiglass air shield that would cut buses' fuel use.

JTA - As a seventh-grader walking home in Highland Park, Ill., Jonny Cohen would watch school buses pass by and wonder if there might be a way to make them more energy efficient.

School buses are an “overlooked form of transportation,” says Jonny Cohen, now 19. “I like efficiency and for things to be efficient, and I have a passion for the environment.”

With the help of some friends and advisers at Northwestern University, he started the GreenShields Project to design an aerodynamic Plexiglass air shield for the front of the buses. The shield cuts the fuel use by buses up to 25 percent by reducing their drag.

“Taking something that already exists and modifying it just a little can make a big difference,” Cohen said. “We only have one earth and we can’t be wasteful.”

Now a sophomore at Columbia University studying mechanical engineering, Cohen still spends several hours a week working on GreenShields to improve its technology and design. The shields are in place on just a handful of buses, but he hopes they will be found “in all school districts, on all school buses to be more [energy] efficient.”

For his efforts with GreenShields, Cohen was named the DillerTeen Tikkun Olam Award winner this year. He plans to apply the award to his education, as well as toward structural and physics research related to the project.

“Repairing the world is a very broad concept,” Cohen said. “GreenShields is a simple solution, but changing the way people see how we use energy, that can have a big impact on the environment.”

JTA spoke to Cohen recently about the qualities he looks for in a hero, the spot where he had a meaningful Jewish experience and the latest book he read for pleasure.

JTA: What do you think are the qualities of a hero?

Cohen: People who have a vision but go out and do it. Their actions are closely related to their thoughts. They are that change.

Can you share with us a meaningful Jewish experience that you’ve had?

I had my bar mitzvah on Masada. The significance of the story of the bravery of Masada overwhelmed me. Masada represents the bravery and honor of our people. It inspires me and makes me proud to be Jewish.

What is your favorite Jewish holiday?

My vote goes for Hanukkah because I think the candles are beautiful and have always loved lighting them with my family.

What do you think you want to be when you grow up?

A mechanical engineer. I hope to build my own company or create some place where I can think of ideas and work in product design making things more efficient for society and decreasing our carbon footprint with innovation.

Have you been able to do any fun things in New York yet?

It’s kind of difficult, but I’ve gotten to go to [the Museum of Modern Art] with my grandma, and we really enjoyed the design section. I’ve also gone to Bryant Park, where you can sit for hours and hours.

What’s the last book you read for pleasure?

“Creative Confidence” by Tom and David Kelley. It’s very cool. I really admire the Kelley brothers. Anyone can change anything.