Chemistry students turn unusable soil into science experiment

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  • Whitefish High School teacher Todd Spangler works with his advanced chemistry students during a soil remediation project at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Whitefish High School students Jessica Henson, Abby Lowry and Ella Greenberg work on a soil remediation project Friday at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Facilities Director Taylor Wilmot chats with Keegan Wold, Xander Burger and Dillon Botner during a soil remediation project at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

  • Whitefish High School teacher Todd Spangler works with his advanced chemistry students during a soil remediation project at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Whitefish High School students Jessica Henson, Abby Lowry and Ella Greenberg work on a soil remediation project Friday at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

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    Facilities Director Taylor Wilmot chats with Keegan Wold, Xander Burger and Dillon Botner during a soil remediation project at the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship last week. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

An early setback for the new Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship has become the type of real-world learning the facility promised.

After planting began at the Whitefish Schools CSE in early June, it became apparent that the soil used in the greenhouse and outdoor raised garden beds was contaminated with an herbicide, CSE Facilities Coordinator Taylor Wilmot said.

“Probably within about a week of some of the initial plantings I noticed some weird symptoms on plants that I had never seen before,” she said. “Mostly — and this is really typical of herbicide contamination — curling of leaves and stems and cupping, where the edges of the leaves come up to form a cup shape.”

Wilmot reached out to the United States Department of Agriculture office in Kalispell, and testing results the following month showed the presence of aminopyralid, an herbicide made by Dow Agrosciences and found in products like Milestone Specialty Herbicide. Wilmot said the soil was purchased locally but the provider was unaware of the contamination.

With nearly all the planters in the center containing at least some of the contaminated soil, Wilmot said there were two clear options — start over or try something new.

Choosing the latter, she and students from teacher Todd Spangler’s advanced chemistry class at Whitefish High School are now in the process of remediating the soil with a variety of methods.

“I was really wanting to remediate from the beginning,” Wilmot said. “The alternative would be to go in, use a bunch of man power to get all the soil out of the raised beds after the community had put in so much work. We’re a sustainability center, so it’s our responsibility to do something with this soil, and what a great learning opportunity for these students. The reality is that herbicide contamination is happening more and more all over the country and the world, and most likely it’s not the only time they’re going to come across a problem like this.”

Students in Spangler’s class have been researching different ways to remediate the soil and started putting their theories to the test Friday morning.

In order to remediate the soil, Wilmot explained, most methods would test different plants and cover crops that could absorb aminopyralid at different rates. Once the chemical is absorbed, the plants can be disposed of and the soil retested to determine if it’s clean and ready to use.

Other methods involve using microbes, microorganisms that can break down the chemical, or even fungi.

Students Xander Burger, Dillon Botner and Keegan Wold are taking the lead on the fungi-based approach, using mycelium — the vegetative part of a fungus.

“We’re doing microbe remediation, which is remediation through mushrooms. We’re pretty much just adding mycelium to the soil and hoping that the mushrooms, through their natural processes, will break down the chemicals in order to remediate the soil,” Burger explained. “It’s unique and it’s not really done too often, you don’t really think about mushrooms when you think about remediation — not many people think about mushrooms in the first place — so I think it’s a unique approach.”

“It’s cool that something from nature will clean up the chemicals we put into nature,” Wold added.

Another group is working with local products to test their remediation process.

Jessica Henson, Abby Lowry and Ella Greenberg are working with Regenysis and Regenichar, products made by the Algae AquaCulture Technologies in the Flathead Valley. These products add carbon back into the soil to expedite the remediation process. The class is also working with Dirt Rich, LLC, another local Flathead Valley business that is providing compost.

The real-world applicability of the project is a nice break from the classroom, they said.

“That’s what I think is really cool about it, being able to actually work with science in a real world setting,” Henson said.

“And not to have it controlled where your teacher is like, “This is what’s going to happen.’ Because none of us really have any idea what’s going to happen, so it’s interesting to be in that situation where you’re working with your teacher versus your teacher telling you what to do,” Lowry added.

The students will continue to remediate and monitor the soil for the next two months.

Wilmot noted that since the CSE’s issue with contaminated soil has become known, more and more people have reached out with questions or similar issues in their own gardens.

The CSE will host future workshops on testing soil before it reaches the garden, Wilmot said.

The early setback for the center has been more of a blessing than a curse, she added.

“We all had dreams of this really lush, green garden and growing all this stuff,” she said. “It was hard, but I don’t think there could’ve been a better outcome, because we’re all learning so much. It’s become such a positive learning experience and the students have this real life problem that’s immediately affecting them that I think is really motivating.”

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