Middle School Kids Go To College

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society and the National Grid Foundation proudly launch the opening of their 2021 “Middle School Kids Go To College” science competition.  For the past eight years, middle school classrooms across Long Island have come together to research Long Island’s water quality crisis and create innovative solutions to address our problems as a community.

The problem:

Long Island’s waters are at a crisis point.  Long Island is a federally-designated sole-source aquifer region, meaning that its 2.8 million residents rely on the groundwater contained within its underground aquifers as the sole source of their drinking water. Unfortunately, scientists have reported a dramatic decline in the quality of our water.  The main culprit is nitrogen pollution, most notably from septic systems and cesspools.  Large swaths of Long Island remain unsewered, and wastewater is instead treated by residential cesspools or septic systems . In Suffolk County alone, there are more than 360,000 individual systems in the ground.  These antiquated systems were never designed to remove nitrogen.  Nitrogen-laden wastewater flows from our houses, into our drinking water aquifers and eventually, ends up in our bays, lakes, streams and rivers.

Diagram showing Long Island's underground drinking water aquifers

Long Island’s Aquifer System

In our surface waters, the excess nitrogen promotes the growth of harmful algae blooms, which are having devastating impacts on our environment and economy.  These blooms have caused massive die-offs of fish, turtles and shellfish.  Some blooms also produce toxins, a public health threat, resulting in the closure of our beaches and shellfish beds in the summer, when tourism is high.  Excess nitrogen in our waters has also weakened the roots of our salt marshes, causing the plants to die and fall off.  Salt marshes serve as an important buffer against storm surge and flooding.  Weakened salt marshes cause the island to be less resilient against storms, which results in catastrophic coastal flooding.

Map of Long Island showing areas where algae blooms and low/no oxygen were observed Summer 2020

Long Island Water Quality Impairments Summer 2020 (Credit: The Gober Laboratory)

In addition to nitrogen, pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs and volatile organic compounds have also been detected in our groundwater supply at alarming levels.

The good news is that we know what the problem is and we know how to fix it.  In areas where wastewater infrastructure has been improved, we have seen toxic algae blooms cease, beaches re-open, and the restoration of eelgrass and shellfish populations.  New septic systems with nitrogen-removing technology have been developed and when installed, can reduce nitrogen in effluent by up to 90%.  Each of the 360,000 individual systems that are polluting our waters will need to be replaced with this new technology.

VIDEO: What is nitrogen pollution?

VIDEO: Where does it go when I flush?

How the program works:
  • We work with Long Island teachers to build authentic Long Island water quality education into their classrooms. Lessons are adapted to work with New York State standards and are multi-disciplinary.  We have a team of veteran teachers who are able to offer guidance to new teachers.
  • After students have learned about Long Island’s waters, they work individually or in teams on independent research projects to create their own innovative solutions to Long Island’s water quality problems.
  • During a normal year (pre-COVID), a select number of participating students join us at Stony Brook University, where they present their research projects to their peers, Stony Brook University Professors and Long Island Pine Barrens Society staff. Projects are presented through posters or by PowerPoint/Video presentation.  Students receive lunch and hear a lecture from world-renown marine scientist and professor, Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.  Student projects are evaluated using science fair standards developed by Brookhaven National Lab.  Finalists are chosen and are later awarded at a ceremony where students are able to meet with and present their ideas to local elected officials.  Students receive awards from the National Grid Foundation and proclamations from the local officials.  The awards ceremony is often featured by local news stations.
  • Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this program is set to run virtually. This program was held virtually in 2020 and was incredibly successful.  Students submit their research presentations via video or essay format to Pine Barrens Society staff.  Each student project receives written feedback from a Society staff member.  All participating students meet with world-renown marine scientist and professor, Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences via Zoom.  Students will be able to interact with Dr. Gobler and ask him questions.  Finalists are chosen and are later awarded at a Zoom ceremony with local elected officials.  Students receive awards from the National Grid Foundation and proclamations from the local officials.  The awards ceremony is often featured by local news stations.
Examples of Winning Presentations:

VIDEO: Winners of the 2020 “Middle School Kids Go To College” Competition

Previous winning topics have included:

  • The impact of pharmaceutical drugs on our water quality
  • Ammonia’s negative effects in our waters
  • Pesticide Pollution
  • Native Gardening
  • 1,4-Dioxane Pollution
  • Water fountain water quality analysis
  • The impact of electronic waste on water quality
  • The dangers of high nitrogen
  • Coastal pollution
  • Toxic chemicals found in our waters
  • The potential impact of cemeteries on our water quality
Who is able to participate?
  • Middle School classrooms or clubs with students in grades 6-8
  • Homeschool groups or students in grades 6-8
  • Outside school clubs with students in grades 6-8
  • All participating students must be from Nassau or Suffolk Counties, New York
Registration and deadlines:
  • Please reach out to Pine Barren Society Deputy Director Katie Brown at kmbrown@pinebarrens.org for more information or to register in the program.
  • Research projects are due by May 7, 2021.
  • The Zoom lecture with Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University will be held mid-May 2021 (date to be determined).
  • The Zoom awards ceremony will be held at the end of June/early July 2021 (date to be determined).

Media

VIDEO: Middle School Kids Go To College Competition Overview

VIDEO: News 12 Long Island Coverage of 2020 Competition

VIDEO: News 12 Long Island Coverage of 2019 Competition

Newsday Coverage of 2019 Competition

The Long Island Pine Barrens Society is proud to offer this program thanks to the generous support of the National Grid Foundation.  Thanks to their support throughout the years, Long Island has developed the next generation of future stewards of our environment.