A Winning Student Project: Cleaning Up Lake Erie

Students happy at work on their science project.

Under the guidance of science teacher Mary Ellen Scott, nine students from Saint Joseph Academy have constructed a new filtration system using slag from steel mills. The simple system they’ve constructed could save Lake Erie by removing the dangerous phosphates that poison drinking water by causing the growth of toxic algae. An additional benefit of removing the dangerous algal build-up is that the students’ solution provides local farmers with rich, natural fertilizer, enabling them to improve their cost margins.

“Eighty percent of the phosphates in Lake Erie come from livestock waste and farm fertilizer runoff,” shared Mrs. Scott, who has taught at Saint Joseph Academy for three years. “High phosphate levels cause algae blooms that release toxins and render the water undrinkable.”

Mrs. Scott and her science students have created inexpensive and portable filters that use slag as the filter material. Over the course of the last few weeks, the students have been placing the filters in area watersheds leading to Lake Erie to capture phosphates and remove bacteria, while converting the harmful phosphates to useful fertilizer.

The students submitted their proposal in October to officials from the Lexus Eco Challenge, sponsored by Scholastic, Inc. The winners will be announced by Scholastic in November. Last year, a team from Saint Joseph's was one of only six of the $10,000 Midwest winners. The project they submitted chronicled the environmental disaster of toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. This year’s project takes the work further by designing a way to remove the problem phosphates, thus creating a real-life application to the algal problem that was researched last year.

“We selected this topic because clean water is so vital to our health and the economy,” said sophomore Joslyn Muniz, who was on the winning Challenge team last year. “Our school is located on a Lake Erie watershed, so the environmental issue is close to home for us.”

“Since early September, students have designed four different filters and evaluated each design for effective phosphate removal, portability and cost effectiveness,” added Mrs. Scott. “We are conducting our research with the guidance of environmental engineers from ArcelorMittal steel, Oklahoma State University, Oberlin College and the George Jones Research Farm, a 70-acre farmstead owned by Oberlin College and leased by the New Agrarian Center as a cooperative farm incubator and educational center.”

“We made the filters from materials we found in hardware stores in Fairview Park and Rocky River,” said sophomore Grace Semon. “We made sure they were light, made of recycled materials whenever possible, and could last in all of Ohio’s seasons.”

The filters were field tested for phosphate reduction in the research ponds at the George Jones Farm, as well as two other farms along the Muskellunge Creek in the Western Lake Erie watershed. “We were able to remove all measurable phosphates at lower contamination levels and 40% to 85% of phosphates at high levels,” said Mrs. Scott.

To make the students' filter, go to SJA Lexus Eco filters on www.youtube.

Mary Ellen Scott

Mary Ellen Scott is a Science and Engineering teacher at Saint Joseph Academy and a finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching. She lives in Rocky River.

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Volume 3, Issue 5, Posted 4:05 PM, 11.04.2015