Black Belt Students Learn Water Research, Treatment

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program awarded funding this summer to a project that will educate Black Belt middle school students on water research and treatment efforts taking place in their community.

The grant, titled “Rural Water Education (RWE) Partnership for Place-Based STEM Learning in Out-of-School Programs,” is led by the Black Belt Community Foundation, or BBCF, in partnership with Greensboro Middle School, The University of Alabama and Alabama Water Institute.

The team powering the interdisciplinary project includes principal investigator of the grant and BBCF Chief Community Engagement Officer Chris Spencer, BBCF CEO Felecia Lucky, Greensboro Middle School Principal Anthony Sanders and Assistant Principal Myra Harris. UA collaborators include Dr. Joni Lakin, Dr. Shannon Davidson and Dr. Dominic Combs from the College of Education; Dr. Emily Elliott from New College; Dr. Hope Whiteside from the Alabama Transportation Institute; and Dr. Mark Elliott from the College of Engineering.

“We are working with the teachers and administration to create learning opportunities for students to understand some of the issues with water and wastewater and then bring in the advocacy where students can propose solutions to these challenges,” said Dr. Joni Lakin, associate professor of educational research at UA. “That is the big goal.”

A project representative talking to students and parents
The Alabama Transportation Institute’s Dr. Hope Whiteside speaks about an activity where students will put to use the engineering design process as well as other skills.

Researchers from the University have collaborated with Greensboro Middle School to develop an after-school program that will introduce students to regional water and wastewater research as well as related socio-environmental issues occurring in and around their community. The curriculum will include STEM-based activities while covering a variety of topics, such as where their drinking water comes from, where wastewater goes, what can happen if wastewater treatment goes awry and more.

“Greensboro Middle School is excited about being engaged in the Gulf Research Program Grant,” Principal Anthony Sanders said. “This extended learning opportunity will not only benefit our students by introducing them to action research and STEM-related activities, it will also benefit our families who live in Newbern. Improving water quality is paramount to have an improved quality of life.” 

One experiment called “Can You Flush It?” will show students which tissue products can clog pipes and back up septic tanks. The activity asks students to put various types of toilet paper, flushable wipes, and other items into containers of water, shake them up, then leave them to sit. After a few days, they will inspect the containers to see which products dissolved and which did not.

The hope is to ignite students’ interest to help make a difference in their community and get involved in STEM learning. One way of doing this is by working on their own water research projects.

“This is scientific research and engineering development in the students’ own community, which makes it personally relevant and more interesting,” Lakin said.

She said another goal for the program is for the students to be able to present their research projects at the Center for Community-Based Partnerships’ UA STEM Showcase, where they will be judged against the work of other area public and private middle school students. Not only is it a chance to display their research, but winners also gain the opportunity to participate in the Central Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair at The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Other plans for the program include hosting events where Greensboro Middle students can share what they learned with their families and possibly the broader community, Lakin said.

Youth learning about water research and what can be done to alleviate wastewater issues close to home will not only help the environment in the long run, but the knowledge they gain could influence them to choose career paths in engineering, science, wastewater treatment and other related fields.  

“If these students get passionate about the subject, they could discover a career that makes a difference and keeps them in their community,” Lakin said. “This is research that they can get excited about and someday contribute to.”

A version of this story by Kelcey Sexton was originally published by the College of Education.