High school team works with Penn State to monitor water for gas drilling impact

RUSH TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- By collecting water samples and using the equipment professionals would at Black Moshannon State Park, State College Area High School students have been learning how the environment affects water quality.

Through the Teen Shale Network, the earth science high school students have been able to get involved in research on Marcellus Shale. They are working with the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State to gather baseline data on the water quality at Black Moshannon should nearby fracking have any effect. The students have made four trips to the park and will present the data at the Shale Network Conference May 12.

The purpose of monitoring is to watch for potential changes resulting from hydraulic fracturing that is set to occur nearby in the future. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method used to draw up natural gas from the ground and has been a topic of controversy. The Teen Shale Network will provide the baseline data needed for a full investigation into its effects on the watershed. The collected data about Black Moshannon will go to a database and will be available to researchers, including those in the Shale Network, a collaborative effort of several institutions.

Eugene Ruocchio, a science teacher at State College Area High School involved with the project, said another goal of the trips is to allow students “to see how science is performed.” Science teacher Yvonne Pickering also has been collaborating on the project.

The participants, most of whom are freshmen, say that they are learning beyond what they would in the classroom.

Maria Rodriguez-Hertz, who has been out to Black Moshannon three times, shared her thoughts on the trips. “It’s different from class,” Rodriguez-Hertz said. “It’s interesting to do science outside of the classroom and not know the answer.”

Teachers have been saying similar things. 

“It’s not a typical classroom lab where the teacher knows the answer,” Ruocchio said. “The answer could take years to find.”

The team has been working on the project since last fall, when they first chose the area where testing would be done. The site after the swimming area between the dam and the bridge was picked because of its lower water level, allowing waders to get into the creek. The area also offered the reassurance that it would not freeze during colder months.

Snow and cold weather prevented students from additional trips for a while. In the meantime, Penn State scientists installed sensors near the bridge.

In February the ninth graders and teachers finally came back. They were roughly divided into two groups so that each could focus on a particular job.

One waded into the creek to download the data that had been recorded by the sensors until then, and to measure the depth and flow of the creek. Every 0.5 meters the students measured the depth and flow of the water using an instrument called Flow Tracker. They made 14 measurements across.

Andrew Neal, a research associate at Penn State, was working with the team to find a relationship between the depth and the volume of the water.

“This is a method used by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) across the country,” Neal said.

The other group collected samples to go back to the lab and get tested for chemical constituents including dissolved organic carbon, chloride, barium and strontium. The dissolved organic compound sample has to be put into a special bottle.

Jennifer Williams, a research associate at Penn State, explained that the bottle is rinsed with acid and then “cooked” to several hundred degrees. When the sample is finally put in, the bottle is sealed with a crimper.

Students also used a multi-parameter water quality sensor called Horiba U-53, which the Horiba company donated. This instrument measures pH, water temperature, electrical conductivity, oxidation-reduction potential, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. The pH in particular will be an indicator of the health of the water and the ecosystem.

Williams said the aim of the trips is “to gather baseline data and to teach the students to be citizen scientists.”

Work continued on the two trips which followed in March and April.

The State High participants along with teachers experienced rough temperatures and harsh weather conditions. On the trip in mid-February, there was approximately 6 inches of snow on the ground. On the visit in mid-March, it was only 35 degrees, the weather overcast and windy with a frozen residue of snow still on the ground. The most recent trip on April 23 saw cloudy skies again with light wind. During the day, snow began to fall, eventually turning into rain.

Although the students had to experience these harsh conditions, they were undeterred. One said: “Real scientists don’t let the weather hold them down.”

Lena Nyblade, a freshman at State High, was recording data that others had collected.

“You can get more science experience outside of school in an uncontrolled environment,” Nyblade said. “Science in class is very controlled.”

The writers of this article are students at State College Area High School.

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Last Updated May 08, 2014