With the help of an LSU professor and a $30,000 handheld X-ray spectrometer, two middle school students in Baton Rouge turned simple science fair projects into published research papers that prompted enviromental responses at several public schools in the Capital City.
“Some scientists take 10 to 15 years to publish something, and it took us just a week of work, two weeks,” said Desirae Gardner, 12, a sixth-grader at Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School.
That work involved using the spectrometer for two days during the Thanksgiving break to examine the soil at 11 public schools in Baton Rouge chosen at random. The projects were conceived in early November and were completed in time for the middle school’s science fair Dec. 8.
Gardner’s examination found elevated levels of arsenic at seven of those schools. Jalen Scott, 13, a seventh-grader at Kenilworth, found lead levels above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency screening limits at four of the 11 schools.
Both projects placed at the regional science fair, with Gardner’s coming in first and Scott’s coming in second, competing in separate categories.
Gardner and Scott had their “research notes” published earlier this month in the research journal, Soil Horizons. They both shared credit with LSU associate professor David Weindorf, a soils specialist with the LSU AgCenter. LSU graduate student Matt Flynn was a co-author of Gardner’s paper, while another LSU graduate student, Elizabeth Matthews, was co-author of Scott’s paper.
“This is really good research. So what that it was done by middle school students?” said Weindorf, who advised several students at Kenilworth on the projects. “They did a good job. It followed good laboratory practices. It was reviewed by scientists from around the world and they accepted it.”
Weindorf said he brought the spectrometer to a brainstorming session in the middle school library in early November. When the idea came up to do something at a school, Weindorf took the children outside and had them try out the spectrometer on the Kenilworth school grounds and said they were immediately hooked.
“They just lit up,” he recalled. “They were so excited.”
Elkhan Akhundov, a Kenilworth science teacher, had reached out to Weindorf the previous summer with the idea of a joint project to expose a select group of Kenilworth students to college-level research methods and resources. Akhundov, who started at Kenilworth this year, said he’s pleased how it all came out, especially for Gardner and Scott.
“This will have a big effect,” Akhundov said. “It will stick with them for the entirety of their lives.”
When these research results first became public a month ago, schools that showed elevated levels of arsenic or lead sent letters home assuring parents that their children were safe and suggesting ways children could avoid ingesting the toxic metals found.
Lead in particular raised concerns at the four schools where it was found at levels of higher than 400 milligrams per kilogram, the EPA screening limit. Those four schools are three elementary schools — Delmont, Southdowns and Westdale Heights Academic Magnet — and Lee High.
Westdale Heights is where Weindorf has a child in school. He said he still feels comfortable sending the child to school there every day. He said high levels of lead in soil can be found in many places, not just at schools, and that they tend to be concentrated in certain areas.
“We didn’t find it all over the school. We were looking at specific areas where we suspected there would be contamination, under the windowsills, near the lead pipe, that sort of thing,” he said.
Nevertheless, schools were right in cautioning children about eating soil in those areas, he said. Weindorf said he would also recommend the school system conduct similar tests at all schools, especially older ones that might still have lead-based paint or wooded playgrounds with old treated lumber.
Both Gardner and Scott started on the project with a simple idea of improving on previous science projects.
For instance a year ago, while he was in sixth grade, Scott decided to do his project on volcanoes, which seemed like a good topic until he realized there where no volcanoes anywhere near Louisiana. He was looking this time for something much closer to home.
Both students admit they knew little to nothing about lead or arsenic or the other metals on their list before they started on these projects.
“Now, we get to understand stuff we never knew before,” said Gardner, who aspires to be a forensic scientist.
Scott, who wants to be a visual artist, said he was motivated as well by a sense of social responsibility. An only child, Scott said he wanted to show he wasn’t like the stereotype of such children; that he would do things to help people, not just for a good grade.
Those feelings heightened as he learned more about lead, a metal that can have long- term detrimental health effects, especially for young children. He suggested schools till the soil around benches and playgrounds or cover the areas with rocks.
“I don’t want lead paint leaching into the soil,” Scott said.