Science Fair Projects: Compost enriches more than soil

As a public agency with wastewater and solid waste oversight, WLSSD fields many requests from students and teachers seeking advice or assistance on science fair and higher level research projects. From advice on experimental design to requests for samples of raw wastewater or compost, we respond to these requests or refer the seekers to more suitable resources. Sometimes we simply don’t have the staff or time to help, so not every request can be fulfilled. But whenever we help students and teachers, we build and strengthen connections within the communities we serve. And sometimes we get to bask in the stellar outcomes that garner top awards. But what about those other students we guide that may or may not be award recipients? Did we make a difference in their lives? Was it a waste of time?

Never! Selfishly, there is always a reflex benefit to a company or agency when staff provides assistance to students and teachers. Residents get to know you and become better acquainted with the hard work that your organization does. There is no downside to investing time and resources as a community partner. For a staff person, serving as a mentor feeds one’s spirit. If lucky, you may hear from your mentees about their subsequent exploits; you might even hear them say you changed their life.

Back in 2006 we assisted a young student with her project. At that time our windrows sported scads of “biodegradable” bags that were clearly not composting properly. We needed to provide guidance to our residential and business generators about which bags to use, and suddenly here was Katherine, a 7th grader wanting to do a project on composting but not sure exactly what to do.

katherine composting 050929

Katherine jumped on the bag project, worked out the experimental design with our assistance, and constructed her compost pile from our daily mix, incorporating “biodegradable” bags from various manufacturers. She dutifully visited her microcosm through a full season of stormy and frigid weather. She dug, sampled and weighed the bag fragments faithfully with support from her parents, who kept her spirits from flagging on the worst days, making sure she hit every sampling date on schedule.

Katherine’s project carried her to the state competition that year, and she received top awards at each level. She continued to participate in science fairs in subsequent years, choosing increasingly complex projects including a stream study. Her parents also dedicated time and energy to support the regional and state science fair program as adult volunteers. Although Katherine’s learning differences have been a challenge, she has achieved personal and academic success from her science fair experiences that extended into college. And the science fair program, itself, greatly benefited from her parents’ support. Katherine studied in Italy her junior year in college, developing a love for soil while working on research under a new mentor who fueled her enthusiasm for this vital natural resource.

Katherine’s grandfather served on the WLSSD board of directors for many years. Upon his death, his family endowed the WLSSD Environmental Science Award in his honor. He was so proud of his granddaughter.

Each year WLSSD staff serve as regional science fair judges for this award, selecting a project that best demonstrates “…creativity, enthusiasm, and a dedication to the scientific process of discovery”. We like to think of this as Katherine’s reward – to us. It’s just one of the many benefits that continue to ripple and positively impact lives when a request for help from a harried teacher or an earnest student is fulfilled.

Flash forward 10 years: Katherine currently serves as a MN GreenCorps member (an AmeriCorps program) housed at WLSSD. She has spent the past year making a difference working with schools in the Greater Duluth area to improve their traditional and organics recycling programs. Here’s to Katherine, closing the loop, ten years later!

By Susan Darley-Hill
Environmental Program Cordinator