AK: High school students enter the world of nano-agriculture

High school students in Kodiak are doing college-level science. Maybe even PhD-level science.

World Bridge is a NASA-sponsored group that assigns Alaskan students to scientific research projects. At a recent competition in Italy, the group showed that their earthquake research could have a global impact, but that’s only one project they’re working on. They’ve also entered the world of nano-agriculture.

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(Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT - Kodiak)
Anna sprays a patch of grass as the Kodiak football team practices in the background. (Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak)

High school junior Anna McDonald sprays an organic fertilizer over a sad-looking patch of dirt on a baseball field. The solution isn’t a chemical, just a combination of microorganisms, sea kelp, and mineral electrolytes. Anna says microbes do all the work.

“… like an earthworm, just eats the toxic soil and digests it and it comes out and it’s perfectly balanced, perfectly natural, just how the earth is made to function,” she said.

Anna and two other students look like exterminators – or Ghostbusters – carrying the fertilizer in plastic backpacks, which Anna says they bought off Amazon. The team has already treated eight other fields and, so far, Anna says the fertilizer seems to be working.

“There was area that was completely bare and we treated it with this enzyme and we came back in four weeks to measure our data and get our results and see what had happened, and it had grown back completely,” she said. “It was full and green, and it looked better than the surrounding area.”

Anna and a handful of other students partnered with the fertilizer’s company to spray a local golf course. Why this product? Well, Anna says, the company reached out to them.

Anna. (Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT - Kodiak)
Anna. (Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak)

But also, “We were very interested in what we could do with it and we wanted to see what it would do for ourselves instead of just reading about it in a paper,” Anna said.

Anna says she’s especially interested in chemistry and the way it can be applied in real-world situations, which is why she loves nano-agriculture.

While spraying the field, a young student recognizes her.

“Ron and I have gone to some middle school classes before to talk to kids about nano-ag and also about tsunami marine debris,” Anna said.

She means Ron Fortunato, the creator of World Bridge, an Alaska STEM program that develops partners in business and industry and then creates real-world projects in school districts.

Fortunato is based in New Jersey. But he worked on a project in Juneau’s school district and the positive experience, and interest in further collaborations from other people in the state, led him to Alaska once again for World Bridge.

Fortunato says officials with the Kodiak Island School District jumped at the chance to get involved in World Bridge.

And this summer, a group of Kodiak high schoolers travelled to Como, Italy to present earthquake data at the Europa Challenge. It’s a competition sponsored in part by NASA along with other international organizations and it usually only accepts university students or industry professionals. Fortunato says they made an exception for the group.

“The researchers that were there, the universities, all the professional who were there,” Fortunato said. “They didn’t talk to them like they were high school students. There was a full measure of respect and welcome into the community – of that geospatial community, which is a big international group there. And it wasn’t that they were looking at them as students. They were looking at their work.”

(Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT - Kodiak)
(Photo by Kayla Desroches, KMXT – Kodiak)

The Kodiak team won that competition.

With the help of NASA and other sponsors, World Bridge’s Kodiak students have a lot of resources at their fingertips.

I drop by their lab in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game building, and there’s a 3D printer set up on one table and a drone on another. In other words, it’s every science buff’s fantasy.

“And then this is the nano-ag bench,” Anne said, giving me a tour of the facility. “Since most of our work is done in the field, this is just kind of where we’re able to sit at our computers and write up reports or decipher all of our data. And it’s where we store our enzyme and our other supplies.”

And if you’re wondering where World Bridge is headed from here, well, it’s all ongoing. And as another student, senior Levi Purdy explains, they’re a team like any other research group.

“Both the professionals and the students and the teachers, we’re all learning above what we understand,” Purdy said. “We’re all experimenting and testing hypotheses, so there’s really no one of us can be on any level higher than the other, because we’re all collaborating and we’re trying to solve a problem.”

As the program proves, the line between high school and college, student and teacher, can blur. Check the sources the next time you read a study online or a news article. You may be surprised by who collected that data.