September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

eXtreme GreenLab

Posted: Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

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.

eXtreme Green Advisory Board Teachers (Bethany is kneeling in the front)

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?

Dr. Bomani

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.

Links:

NASA Explorer Schools:
http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/programs/national/nes2/home/index.html

Dr. Bomani TED Talk:
http://www.ted.com/talks/bilal_bomani_plant_fuels_that_could_power_a_jet.html

Page Keeley Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning:
http://learningcenter.nsta.org/product_detail.aspx?id=10.2505/9781412941808

NASA GreenLab:
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/events/tour_green_lab.html

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy and is a member of CSTA.

Written by Bethany Dixon

Bethany Dixon is a science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy, is a CSTA Publications Committee Member, and is a member of CSTA.

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