Urban wetland fosters an early appreciation for science, nature

September 11, 2012

Wading around in the hot sun through a wastewater treatment plant doesn’t rank too highly with most folks, but for a team of young ecologists, it’s all part of the research experience.

For the past few years, ASU has been conducting studies at the Tres Rios wetlands, a facility constructed by the City of Phoenix as an alternative to traditional wastewater treatment. Researchers want to know how successfully these man-made wetlands provide ecosystem services like wildlife habitat and water treatment in an arid landscape. Image of urban wetland in Phoenix, AZ. Download Full Image

Dan Childers is director of Central Arizona – Phoenix Long-Term Ecological Research (CAP LTER) at Arizona State University and faculty researcher for the Tres Rios project. He says the urban location provides a unique setting for learning wetlands ecology.

Making learning fun

One goal of this research initiative is providing environmental education to high school and college students. “In this project we’ve got students doing both lab work and field work, and that is pretty unusual,” Childers says.

In June, Ariah Evans, Aunese Evans, and Daniel Loza joined Childers and ASU’s Wetland Ecosystem Ecology Lab (WEEL) group to work on a plant decomposition study at Tres Rios. As part of their work, they measured greenhouse gas emissions, plant growth, and water evaporation.

The three students come from two Phoenix high schools and are part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Assistantships for High School Students (RAHSS) program. The assistantships encourage underrepresented students, including women, to participate in scientific research.

“I liked doing the measuring of the biomass because you can see how fast the plants are going to grow and how thick they can become before they actually start thatching, which means they just fall over because they can’t support themselves anymore,” Loza says. He learned the term “thatching” by examining the plants in the field.

All the students agree that learning in the field and the lab is better than reading a book.

“A book may say a plant grows seven feet tall, but you’re not going to know that until you’re out there and like, ‘oh my gosh that plant is so tall!’” Ariah says.

Her sister Aunese agrees. “It’s more interesting, and you actually want to get involved and learn more.”

Part of being a student researcher is also being prepared for the unexpected.

“There’s all sorts of surprises when we’re out in the field, like when you’re measuring plants and find a nest with three baby birds in it or when you have to rescue a fish that’s been flopping around on the marsh,” Childers says. “A book wouldn’t have these experiences.”

Science isn't just about white lab coats

Childers has observed the young students changing throughout the research process.

“The most significant change I’ve noticed is when they first showed up here, I saw a lot of glazed looks on their faces,” he says. “And those glazed faces are gone.”

The students have noticed a change too.

Aunese is more aware of the environment, and Ariah no longer thinks science is dull.

“In grade school I thought science was really boring, but now it’s more interesting,” Ariah says. “It’s different than what you would think science would be.”

Loza recognizes the hard work he’s put in during the past two months.

“You get to learn how to form your research question – your thesis – and be able to set up your research, get the information, and actually look at how the results vary through time,” he says. “The part I like the most is when you get to see the results and go ‘there’s my work’ and being able to accomplish something.”

Creating a cycle of mentorship

It’s not just the high school students who are learning new skills. The project creates an opportunity for innovative student and peer mentoring as well. Two undergraduate students assisting the Tres Rios research are funded through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Chris Sanchez, a junior at the University of Miami studying anthropology and environmental sciences, says he can better prepare the high school students because he participated in the RAHSS program when he was in high school.

“I can anticipate when the students would have questions and I can explain concepts to them in a way that would make sense to a high school mind,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez mentors the students with another undergraduate, Nich Weller, a senior in ASU’s School of Sustainability studying urban ecosystems. Weller says there is constant collaboration with the high school students.

“They always have questions for us, and oftentimes we have questions for them,” Weller adds. “It’s sort of ad hoc learning as you go.”

The two coordinate with the Tres Rios project manager at the City of Phoenix to schedule their field days and obtain data pertinent to their individual experimental studies. Weller coordinates field trip volunteers and Sanchez is working on a water budget for the wetlands. Sanchez has also presented about the Tres Rios project to high school biology teachers. Both Weller and Sanchez hope to use these skills in graduate school.

“I think the most valuable thing I have learned is how to scale knowledge,” Sanchez says. “How to take something that you’ve read an entire book on and spent three weeks reading the instructional materials on, and how to digest that and spit it out at high school level in 30 minutes during a lab briefing.”

One of five graduate researchers in the WEEL lab, Jorge Ramos is a past participant in the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. He guides not only the high school students, but the undergraduate students as well. He says he continues to mentor so that other students get the experience he had while in SEEDS.

“It’s always good to give back,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mentors.”

Preparing for a future in science

Experiences like the Tres Rios project inspire future scientists and biologists and lay a foundation for creating a sustainable society.

“I think it’s important to have access to environmental education for people who are interested in learning about how natural systems function, how we use natural systems, and how we live with natural systems,” Weller says. “Especially with sustainability, you may learn aspects of ecological systems that are applicable to other systems.”

In the end, Childers hopes that the Tres Rios research gives all the students a learning experience that can’t compare to others.

“I think, fundamentally, what I would like to know is that the process of what we went through this summer has given them an opportunity to think a little more critically and creatively on their own and recognize there’s a big picture to everything,” he says.

Because of the Tres Rios project, Aunese, Ariah, and Daniel all hope to continue their science education and possibly return to the wetlands this fall. Sanchez and Weller say they will bring their expertise to graduate school in the near future and all researchers are excited to have a complete year of data for Tres Rios.

Which is to say, there will be more wastewater wading in these students’ futures. And they’re looking forward to it.

Natalie Muilenberg, nmuilenb@asu.edu
Global Institute of Sustainability

ASU to lead first-ever national algae testbed, awarded $15M grant from Department of Energy

September 12, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy has selected the Arizona State University led Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3) for a $15M award for its Advancements in Sustainable Algal Production opportunity.

“This algae national testbed will provide high quality data and a network of sites that will speed the pace of innovation,” said Gary Dirks, director of ATP3 and ASU LightWorks, the university initiative that pulls light-inspired research at ASU under one strategic framework. “The network will support companies and research institutions as they work to meet the nation’s energy challenges.” Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) Download Full Image

"ASU is committed to advancing research and economic development," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, senior vice president with ASU's Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development. "We are proud of the work being done at the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation on our Polytechnic campus and are looking forward to increasing our impact on the advancement of the algae-industry in collaboration with the newly established ATP3 partnership."

The ATP3 partnership is led by the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI) housed at ASU’s Polytechnic campus with support from national labs and academic and industrial partners, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Sandia National Laboratories, Cellana LLC, Touchstone Research Laboratory, SRS Energy, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Commercial Algae Management.

“This is a critical step for DOE’s support of the growing algal biofuel industry,” said Philip Pienkos, principal manager of the applied biology group at NREL and director of integration for ATP3. “The productivity data generated by the ATP3 testbeds will flow into techno-economic and lifecycle assessment models and provide a basis for tracking progress toward goals in production economics and sustainability. By making high quality testbed capabilities available to researchers and technology developers, they will allow rapid testing of novel concepts at scale and greatly accelerate commercialization. 

"NREL is proud to play a key role in the establishment and operation of the ATP3 testbed in a manner that will allow DOE to achieve its long term goals towards production of advanced biofuels.”

ATP3 will function as a testing facility for the algal research community supporting the operation of existing outdoor algae cultivation systems and allowing researchers access to real-world conditions for algal biomass production for biofuel. Testbed facilities for the partnership are physically located in Arizona, Hawaii, California, Ohio and Georgia.

DOE’s investment from its Biomass Program in ATP3 means companies and research institutes will now have access to facilities and data from long-term algal cultivation trials for use in establishing a realistic and coherent state of technology for algal biofuels.

“This multi-regional testbed will address a major gap currently hindering the scale-up of algal biofuels,” said Blake Simmons, the biomass program manager for Sandia. “This partnership will provide validated data on algal growth and biofuel production across multiple sites in the USA, and will provide essential data related to the scale-up and commercialization of algal biofuels.”

AzCATI was created by grants from Science Foundation Arizona and its president and CEO William Harris. AzCATI and algae research and development also benefitted from the strong support of Arizona Gov. Janice Brewer.

Two new algae-related bills passed in Arizona classify algae as agriculture and allow for growth and harvest of algae on state trust lands. These advancements in the state create a more attractive environment for industry. Arizona is poised to be a preferred destination for new algae-based companies to form and flourish.

For more information about AzCATI visit azcati.com.