Students Dug Digging into Environmental Research

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

 Mark Fontaine handed out awards at the recent Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Warwick campus. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

Mark Fontaine handed out awards at the recent Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Warwick campus. (Nicholas Boke/ecoRI News photos)

WARWICK, R.I. — The several hundred students, parents and teachers seated in the Community College of Rhode Island theater attested to the interest that the Rhode Island Science and Engineering Fair had generated. It wasn’t, however, the dozens of awards to be given out at the ceremony that were the real reward.

The real reward the students earned from the Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Science projects they had showcased on March 18 had already been earned.

“This is the only time,” longtime fair director and CCRI professor Mark Fontaine said, “that they get to actually do science. Labs are good, but they’re demonstrative, while this is a chance for students to do actual research. They find the original question, develop the hypothesis, and go through the entire process.”

The award-winners ecoRI News spoke with confirmed that this was the real value of their several months of trudging through swamps, testing floatation materials, rummaging around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, dropping alum into turbid water, or measuring the amount of heavy metals absorbed by aquatic macrophytes.

East Greenwich High School senior Dominique Harris was part of a three-person team studying the impact on Fry Brook of runoff from a dairy farm. She said team members had initially wanted to pursue another topic, but once they had begun the analysis, it all came to life and they began to feel like scientists.

As fellow senior Lev Simon said, “I thought, ‘Wow! We’re really doing this.’”

The East Greenwich team won an award from the Rhode Island Waterworks Association for its project “Eutrophication in Fry Brook.”

Coventry High School junior Abigail Harbeck, who developed a model for “amphibious houses” that could be built in flood-prone regions and raised when the waters rose, noted that, “I’d been watching people rebuild houses in the same place where the last one had just been destroyed by flooding. Any person with common sense could see that you should do something different. I’m just a kid doing this. But adult engineers aren’t kids, and neither are insurance companies.”

Harbeck won the Governor’s Award and the top award for senior projects for her “Floating Houses” project.

 The East Greenwich team of Dominique Harris, left, Grace Scott, center, and Lev Simon.

The East Greenwich team of Dominique Harris, left, Grace Scott, center, and Lev Simon.

Answering their questions
The students took different routes to get to their projects. Some, like Harbeck, who had been following the news about hurricane-induced coastal flooding, were simply puzzled that adults weren’t doing what obviously needed to be done. Others wanted to elaborate on knowledge they has already acquired.

Mount Hope High School senior Meg O’Brien, for example, decided to combine what she had learned from her three previous science-fair projects with an interest in Narragansett Bay water quality she had developed working as a docent at Save The Bay’s Newport Aquarium. Considering the options, she decided, “I thought it would be cool to study ways plants have an effect on water quality.”

She, too, was awarded by the Rhode Island Waterworks Association for “Waddle We Do without Duckweed: Phytoremediation in Water Using Aquatic Macrophytes.”

St. Philomena eighth-grader Mason Holling, however, wanted to clarify for himself the question of the impact of climate change on coral reefs by measuring what happens to the pH (base-acid balance) of salt water when its temperature is raised.

“I’d read about the bleaching of coral reefs around the world,” he said. “So I wanted to test it and see if it had to do with global warming.”

He was awarded a Naval Engineering Award by the Office of Naval Research for “How Coral Reefs Are Affected by the Changing pH and Salinity Levels of Ocean Water Caused by Global Warming.”

East Greenwich science teacher Nick Rath had told his environmental studies class about a grant available to high-school students from the Falmouth, Mass.-based Marjot Foundation. Finding out that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had studied Fry Brook in 1974, the three-student team decided to apply for a grant. The Marjot grant required that they enter a state science fair. Their initial interest in studying traffic issues at the intersection leading to the high school ran into an obstacle.

“We realized that if we studied that,” senior Grace Scott said, “we’d just come up with a suggestion for somebody else to act on. Studying the brook would be different, and we really got excited once we began to consider the variables.”

Father John V. Doyle eighth-grader Jacob Phillips had a simple goal: “I’d done a project the year before on cleaning up water. I wanted to do something that could really affect the world, change the world in a positive way by making water drinkable for disadvantaged people, like in parts of Africa. I came up with a project for purifying water.”

His project, “From Turbid to Clear: How Flocculation Cleans up Drinking Water,” was the top environmental engineering project in the junior division.

Facing their frustrations
It was not all steady going, however.

The problems ranged from the technical to, well, the weather.

 Coventry High School student Abigail Harbeck developed a model for ‘amphibious houses’ that could be built in flood-prone regions.

Coventry High School student Abigail Harbeck developed a model for ‘amphibious houses’ that could be built in flood-prone regions.

For Harbeck, for example, the small aquarium she set her model floating house in was too small to accommodate the electric winch she was proposing; the house would be anchored to bedrock and raised as needed when the waters rose. The floatation materials were also tricky; she finally decided to cover the fragile but buoyant Styrofoam with epoxy, like a surfboard.

For Phillips, finding a flocculant — a positively charged material that will bond with negatively charged dirt, making it heavy enough to drop to the bottom so it can be removed — was limited, in that alum was the only commercially available product. There also remained the question to when the water had become clean enough to be safe for drinking.

O’Brien had to scramble to save her project when the power went out at her home for several days and two of the macrophytes — duckweed, water lettuce and azolla — she was using to absorb heavy metals died. She found a tropical fish store in Providence, so she could restock and continue her experiments.

In the beginning of the project, bushwhacking through a swampy area to get to one of the Fry Brook sites to measure six water-quality indices was a bit of a trial for the East Greenwich crew, but they eventually got used to it. Then, there was the question of why one of the variables they were measuring, benthic macroinvertebrates — “Just call ’em bugs; they’re a measure of biodiversity,” Simon said — was more prevalent at the site farthest from the farm than at another site.

Lessons learned
So, what do they know now?

The East Greenwich team concluded that their measurements indicated that, as their summary explained, “such eutrophication, while not as acute as that observed in 1974, could still negatively impact the overall health of the surrounding ecosystem.”

Phillips concluded that his fairly simple process for using flocculants to remove solids from water actually works.

To O’Brien, in addition to finding that her macrophytes were effective for removing heavy metals, the knowledge that Narragansett Bay still has trace amounts of silver, gold and other heavy metals is important.

“People might be unaware that there are still trace concentrations from the jewelry industry years ago,” she said. “Maybe we don’t even know that these are having an impact on life, lower on the food chain.”

Holling’s project, along with his review of the literature about climate change, led him to conclude that “our generation has to stop using as many fossil fuels and control the rate of global warming and climate change or we’ll lose all the coral reefs.”

Harbeck’s findings were similar, but more dire.

“Climate change and sea-level rise are real,” she said. “There’s no doubt about it. The coastal regions are sinking. We have to prepare.”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant who lives in Providence.