Green Science

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© Michael Coons/Acorn Newspapers
Kelsea Bergh, left, and Joseph Kobayashi, 16-year-old juniors at Rio Mesa High School, give a presentation on waste produced by fast-food restaurants during the annual International Baccalaureate chemistry symposium at the local high school on Dec. 15. Students were asked to create experiments that applied to environmental science and the study of sustainability. © Michael Coons/Acorn Newspapers
In the spring of 2010, Joan Hart and Kim Wang watched the evening news in dismay as the BP oil spill blanketed the Gulf of Mexico.The Rio Mesa High School students realized that Gulf Coast residents were struggling to soak up the oil left behind by the spill.

“We saw how devastating it was and how long it took to clean it up; it seemed like nothing was working,” Joan said. “Oil spills are so damaging on wildlife. We wanted to do something to change it and benefit the environment.”

The two girls, now 16-yearold juniors, put their science skills into action and developed a series of experiments to see whether they could come up with a better way to pull oil from the ocean and surrounding coastline.

The teens worked on the project as part of the school’s International Baccalaureate chemistry program, which requires students to apply scientific theories to real-life problems. This year’s theme was environmental, or green, science.

“ I think it’s important to learn about green science because we can find a way to help and so the public knows what they’re using and how it affects the environment,” Joan said.

Each group of students selected a topic, designed an experiment, performed the experiment and presented their findings to a panel of teachers, parents and administrators at the high school on Dec. 15.

“(The students) see science go beyond the classroom in this particular project,” said teacher Corene Duarte. “They’re realworld problems, so there’s a lot of unknowns. Sixteen-year-olds don’t realize how much in the world is unknown.”

Soak it up

Motivated by last year’s environmental disaster in the Gulf, Joan and Kim tried to find the best nonchemical material —one that any resident could use and afford—to soak up oil.

“ Oil spills can affect an entire planet because the ocean is so intricate,” Kim said. “We wanted to find a better solution to clean up an oil spill.”

They tested five materials for oil absorption. They learned cellulose towels performed the best, with human hair a close second. Polyester was third, followed by pine needles. The worst-performing werecotton balls.

The girls said the experiment was challenging and rewarding, and they hope their findings can be used to clean up oil spills on a larger scale.

“It’s exciting to think maybe this can be used in the future,” Joan said.

A global perspective

Students Sam Birns, Andrew Eongo, Jacob Salas and Matthew Anees tested the effects of acid rain on aquatic life. The 16-year-olds put elodea, a waterweed, in a fish tank to represent a pond and added vinegar and water to simulate acid rain. The group measured how the pH of the water fluctuated and how the plant was affected.

“Acid rain is a big threat to all the ecosystems in the U.S.,” Matthew said. “We wanted to find a way to keep the ponds alive.”

They discovered that the simulated rainwater lowered the pH of the pond water. With a pH of less than 6, plant life became brittle, stopped producing oxygen and died after six days.

They learned that half the ponds in the United States have a pH of 5 or below and are now void of plant life and ridden with algae.

During their presentation the group talked about the irreversible effects of acid rain on the world’s freshwater resources.

“We need to find an alternative and maintain balance,” Sam said. “If we don’t protect our ecosystems, we won’t have a sustainable way of living, and it will be a huge problem in the future. We have to fix this now instead of getting stuck later.”

Green clean

Dylan Kanji, 16; Joel Wermter, 17; and Jason Chua, 17, tested the performance and environmental effects of green and non-green household cleaners.

The boys said they chose the topic because everyone uses cleaning agents and therefore the general public would be interested in the fi ndings.

In a surprising outcome, the group found the non-green cleaners to be the best choice.

“ We learned that not all claims made by companies are true,” Joel said. “ The green cleaners were not that much better for the environment and had bad performance.”

The green cleaners did a poor job in removing mold, soap scum and calcium buildup, the group found, and they were very similar in chemical makeup to the nongreen cleaners. Joel said he hopes the findings will help the general public be more diligent in learning about the products they’re using every day.

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