Portland High School students sample college chemistry at USM

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PORTLAND — A handful of Portland High School students came to the University of Southern Maine last week to answer one question: what’s killing fish?

On Jan. 15, the USM Chemistry Department hosted an environmental science class from PHS for a project-based lab in the college’s science building. The lab was an abbreviated version of an introductory course called the Green River Project, where students look at water samples to try to identify what is contaminating the source.

Professor Lucille Benedict said while the students weren’t looking at an actual river system, they were attempting to identify what was killing fish in the system by looking upriver at a textile mill and housing complex. The students cycled through four stations “to identify what the culprit is,” she said.

Those four stations had students looking at conductivity in pH levels, turbidity (haziness of fluid), nitrates, and finally chromatography of dyes in the water.The ultimate goal of the project, Benedict said, was to expose the high school students to lab work they don’t usually have, and to get them comfortable enough to start asking questions.

“It’s all about teaching and learning,” she said.

Benedict added the two clubs involved with putting the event on, the Chemistry Club and Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, “do a lot of outreach.” She said the goal is to do more labs like these with other high schools.

USM human biology major Miranda Powell was one of a handful of university students volunteering at the lab. She said participation provided a review for her, but also for showing the high school students “techniques for forensics and chemistry” and “how things are practiced in real life.”

Powell added being in a lab can be intimidating for the first time, especially for the female high school students, but by talking about what’s going on they “can take the intimidation out of it.”

PHS sophomore Bryant Peterson, at the station exploring nitrates, explained he and his partners were checking to see how much light went through five different water samples.

They started with water samples, then added four drops of a coloring agent to each one, which turned the samples pink. “Then you put in the electrophotometer to see how much light goes through,” Peterson said.

The students ultimately concluded nitrates from an upstream housing development created algae that killed the fish, Benedict said.

“Every time we do it with different schools we can change the outcome,” she noted.

Benedict said the housing development is representative of what’s around the state of Maine. The textile mill as the source of contamination “would probably not happen,” she said, thanks to federal regulations, but does represent water contamination sources in other countries.

This wasn’t the first time a high school class has participated in a lab at USM; Benedict said Casco Bay High School students participated in a forensics lab a few years ago. There are also plans to host a forensics lab for a PHS chemistry class, and another river lab for CBHS students in late February.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Portland High School sophomores Katherine Doughty and Bryant Peterson check water samples for contamination in lab at the University of Southern Maine last week.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.