by Bethany Dixon
“Put your hand into the tank, and they’ll eat off the dead skin.” NASA senior research scientist Dr. Bilal Bomani demonstrates and a swarm of mollies nibble his fingers. Teachers look warily at the rows of massive saltwater tanks. Following Dr. Bomani’s example, we plunge our hands in. It tickles. Since its mission is to develop in-house capabilities to study biofuels as a renewable, alternative energy source for aviation fuel, the eXtreme GreenLab at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is an unlikely place for hand treatments. In May, the NASA Explorer Schools program selected 50 teachers out of the 2,800 registered NASA Explorer teachers for special recognition and the “Research Experience of a Lifetime:” an all-expenses-paid trip to work with NASA investigators in the field at one of four NASA sites (and get a free exfoliating hand treatment). I was one of the twelve teachers who worked in the GreenLabthis summer, and here is how you can begin to implement “eXtreme Green” practices in your classroom this fall.
With apologies to Kermit, it really isn’t easy being green. Environmental marketing has made it difficult for consumers to know whether “green” companies are actually being good stewards or simply moving the problem from one sector to another. For example, using ethanol to reduce dependence on fossil fuels creates competition between farmland used for fuel and farmland used for growing food crops. This makes us choose between powering our technology or our bodies, and creates an unsustainable solution. However, understanding and protecting our home planet is a core part of the NASA mission, and Dr. Bomani’s team is dedicated to finding new ideas through research and development. Sustainable environmental practices are a key component of the work. For example, their research doesn’t use freshwater because it competes with human consumption, doesn’t compete against traditional food crops (corn, soybeans, sugarcane, etc.), and doesn’t use arable land because it competes with food crops.
In short, they have to use rocky, salty soil, non-potable, brackish water, and attempt to grow enough plants to process into fuel-quality oil. Finding plants that can survive under these harsh conditions to the point of producing enough biomass for fuel is hard enough, but NASA is attempting to use native plants in order to reduce the ecological impact. Dr. Bomani is working with halophytes (salt-loving plants) and algae with the goal of building systems that can be scaled-up for production, or scaled-down for trials or even student research in the classroom. With increased production, biofuels can be used in aviation and even space exploration. But in the classroom, my students will be building a mini-version of Dr. Bomani’s lab to learn introductory biology and for their own inquiries based around the same question used in the GreenLab: which local plants produce the most biomass and can be grown in the most sustainable manner?
I plan to use the lab with my high school biology students, beginning with formative assessments about the characteristics of life, (modifying the cucumber seed probe from Page Keeley’s book, for example), and watching Dr. Bomani’s TED Talk, “Plant fuels that could power a jet.” The lab setup is simple and inexpensive: one 35-gallon aquarium, a 75-gallon pump, marine sand, plants, plastic screening, PVC pipe, and freshwater mollies. Students will build a platform from PVC with the plastic screening holding the sand like a shelf in the tank. Teacher-drilled holes allow water to flow through the entire system. Homeostasis and feedback loops are easily integrated into the next part of the investigation: slowly acclimating freshwater mollies to a marine system. Marine conditions provide a model for using salty coastal scrublands as biofuel farms. Students will germinate halophyte seeds donated from Dr. Bomani’s lab in the salty-sand top of the tank, while mollies underneath will provide nutrients to the plants. Students will be challenged to increase the amount of biomass produced in the tank and to come up with their own hypothesis about a local plant that could be a sustainable fuel crop.
By challenging students to follow the eXtreme Green example we point them toward more sustainable thinking. In your next inquiry lab, think about adding an eXtreme Green variable like non-potable water or non-arable soil. As you integrate the new engineering standards, consider the parameters of the GreenLab and think about the aspects of environmental engineering that could be applied. Which of your favorite activities can you make eXtreme Green so that they’re focused on long-term sustainability? This fall, I hope that through my work in the GreenLab I can inspire my students to put their “hands in” to research—not in the fish tank, but in a way that will positively impact their future, and maybe the future for everyone.
NASA Explorer Schools:
Dr. Bomani TED Talk:
Page Keeley Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning:
Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy and is a member of CSTA.
by Michelle French
Since the public reviews of the Next Generation Science Standards have come to a close, like many primary teachers, I’ve been wondering what science will look like in kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms. Learn More…
“SOL Grotto, 2012. 1368 glass tubes, paint. Fabrication: Matarozzi Pelsinger, Rael San Fratello Architects. SOL Grotto is a contemporary take on a grotto or Throeau’s cabin – a spartan retreat that is a space of solitude and close to nature – where one is presented with a mediated experience of water, coolness and light. The SOL Grotto also explores Solyndra’s role as a company S#@t Out of Luck. 1,368 of the 24 million high tech glass tubes destined to be destroyed as a casualty of their bankruptcy, are used in the installation. The tube’s original role as a light concentrating element is extended to transmit cool air into the space via the Venturi effect, to amplify sounds from the adjacent waterfall via the vibrations of the tubes cantilevering over the creek, and to create distorted views of the garden. The form of the electric blue array evokes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave where shadows, light and sounds can call reality into question.”
Responses from Readers:
Peter A’Hearn: Rush hour in little blue circle land.
by Valerie Joyner
Congratulations to CSTA member and STEM Educator, Katherine Schenkelberg, of West High School, in Torrance, CA! Katherine was recently awarded one of the 2013 Vernier/NSTA Technology Awards. An appointed panel of experts selected her for her innovative use of data-collection technology. “The use of data-collection technology in the classroom helps foster students’ interest in STEM education and provides them with engaging, hands-on opportunities for scientific investigation,” said David Vernier, co-founder of Vernier and a former physics teacher. “For ten years Vernier and NSTA have recognized innovative STEM educators through this award and this year’s winners are no exception – their projects and programs truly utilize the power of data-collection technology as part of the teaching and learning process.” Learn More…
by Tim Williamson
Members of the California Science Teachers Association are now in the process of voting for qualified CSTA members to fill the seven openings on the CSTA Board of Directors for the 2013-2015 term.
The election is being conducted electronically and opened for voting on April 16, 2013. Voting will close on May 16, 2013. All CSTA members were sent links to the online ballot. Members for whom we do not have current email addresses or who request a paper ballot have been mailed a ballot and candidate statements. Learn More…