If anything happens to the water in Black Moshannon Creek, a group of State College Area School District earth science students might just be the first to know.
The teens, mostly from State High but with a few advanced eighth-graders thrown in, have been monitoring the watershed this year in partnership with researchers from Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.
The project, called TeenShale Network, gives students a chance to learn science exists outside of their textbooks and classrooms, and that their work can make a difference in the real world.
“I think TSN is important, because I think that people should have more awareness for the environment when they are younger,” said Toby Ma, an eighth-grader participating in the group.
Students, their teachers and Penn State researchers traveled to Black Moshannon State Park several times in the fall and spring to sample stream water.
They are looking for changes in water quality that could be caused by pollutants from sources like nearby natural gas drilling sites.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used to extract natural gas from rocks deep underground and the process has been controversial due to potential environmental impacts.
Sampling the stream gives students a baseline of water quality, and going back lets them see if anything has changed due to fracking or other factors.
“I have learned that there are many different things that you can tell from one sample of water,” Toby said.
During the year, the students learned to take their own samples working alongside Penn State researchers using the same equipment as the professionals.
They learned to make graphs analyzing their data to better track whether there are any changes in water quality. The data they collect is uploaded to a larger statewide database of water quality.
“We get a lot of data, and we have to figure out what is important, what makes sense and what doesn’t,” said Oliver Rose, a 10th-grade student who said he’s drawn to the analytical side of the project. “You think, discharge measurements, what does this have to do with fracking — but you realize that this may relate to the indicators which do have to do with fracking.”
The students will present their findings at the annual Shale Network Workshop, held this week at the Atherton Hotel and on the Penn State campus.
This year, students were able to run the same kinds of chemical tests on the water that Penn State researchers do in their labs.
The University of Pittsburgh Mobile Science Lab traveled to State College Area High School last month and helped students do things such as test the water for alkalinity and hardness and measure for the concentration of barium and sulfate.
Researchers from Pitt and Penn State are both part of Shale Network, a group seeking to collect water data from across the state and make the data available to the public.
“The students are actually going one step beyond what they’ve been doing,” said Jennifer Williams, a Penn State researcher and outreach coordinator for Shale Network. “They are actually doing the kinds of chemical analysis we do in our labs.”
Students said the kind of hands-on experience they get working on the TeenShale Network is unique and not something they can learn in labs or the classroom.
“It’s successful because kids are getting out of the classroom working with real scientists,” said Eugene Ruocchio, one of the high school science teachers involved in the project. “We are getting kids real experience in science.”
This is the fourth year of the project. Many students returned after participating last year, and others said they look forward to continuing to work with TeenShale Network.
“I had no idea what it was before I decided to do it, and I signed up for it and got lucky,” said Zachiah Cook, who took part in the group for the first time.
Ethan Rowland is an eighth-grader at Park Forest Middle School and Emily Lieb is a sophomore at State College Area High School.