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Amid a changing landscape, students apply scientific inquiry to environmental resiliency

Projects tackle bioplastics, magnetism, efficient irrigation and more
Madalyn Tharp, 16, a student at Animas High School, describes her project about “bioplastics” Wednesday during the San Juan Resilience Youth Summit for environmental and society issues in the Ballroom at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The San Juan Resilience Youth Summit unfolded Wednesday at Fort Lewis College with nearly 100 middle and high school students presenting their research projects. The projects spanned a number of topics, each tying the environment or society back to the theme of resilience.

In 2019, the theme of resilience was paired to wildfires after the 416 Fire. Students met with land experts about how the scorched earth would affect flooding in the coming year, said Amanda Kuenzi, Mountain Studies Institute community science director.

Last year, students researched topics about resilience around water. This year, the floor was open to all topics revolving around resilience.

Sophie Nay-Ostendorp, 14, with St. Columba School describes her project about experimenting with E. coli on Wednesday during the San Juan Resilience Youth Summit for environmental and society issues in the Ballroom at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Projects presented in FLC’s Student Union Building Ballroom included Madalyn Tharp’s study about the sustainability of bioplastics versus regular plastics. Tharp, a 10th grade Animas High School student, found that bioplastics may not live up to the hype regarding sustainability – at least not without a large professional composting facility on hand.

“I was trying to find the sustainability of bioplastics in Durango and if they really are better than regular plastics,” she said. “What I found out after doing some tests and a lot of research is that technically, bioplastics are not better than regular plastics.”

Tharp worked with homemade bioplastics as well as various plastics produced by big corporations and found professional composting is needed to degrade any of them. Her conclusion? Bioplastics should not be held in higher regard than other plastics, especially in rural areas where the resources aren’t as available for getting rid of them.

“When people are looking at environmental issues, they need to look at all the things (about the issue) and not just what people say,” she said. “They need to look into it for themselves and be critical thinkers.”

Another project concerned the Dolores watershed. AJ Saiz, a sophomore at Southwest Open School in Cortez, interned with Montezuma Land Conservancy, where he found his passion for water systems. His project was concerned with learning where springwater runoff goes when it flows.

Saiz said water is what will take him places. He said climate change, shortness of winter and learning about where water comes from inspires him.

Jay Loschert with Montezuma Land Conservancy said Saiz interned at the conservancy’s 83-acre research and education farm in Lewis.

Saiz worked with Loschert on a research project about how to irrigate farmland more efficiently. Using moisture probes buried 12 to 24 inches into the ground, they measured moisture levels and forage growth to determine how much water they needed to get adequate growth.

“We’ve learned that even by reducing our water that we put on the farm by half, we see a very small decrease in production,” Loschert said.

Jay Loschert with Montezuma Land Conservancy shows how water distribution works in the Dolores watershed on Wednesday during the San Juan Resilience Youth Summit for environmental and society issues in the Ballroom at Fort Lewis College. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The annual youth summit, hosted in partnership between Mountain Studies Institute and FLC, debuted in 2019 at the La Plata County Fairgrounds with about 130 student participants. It was postponed in 2020 because of COVID-19 and was reduced to a virtual meeting last year.

Students were excited to be back in person Tuesday. They traveled from Southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico to show off their projects, which ranged from water conservation in irrigation to how natural disasters affect local economies.

The students didn’t just show off their own work; they also engaged with their peers to ask questions and learn from each other, Kuenzi said.

“The idea here is to give them an opportunity that mirrors what a professional conference will look like for them later in their careers,” she said. “(The youth summit) starts them now when they’re young, building that network between future environmental leaders for this area.”

Mountain Studies Institute works with FLC year-round through its Environmental Pathways program, formerly known as the Environmental Science and Climate Institute. Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative, an organization connecting educational and vocational resources across school districts, has joined in serving the Environmental Pathways program, Kuenzi said.

She said the program was renamed to reflect all the various lenses the environment can be examined through: humanities and arts in addition to the sciences.

“We want to welcome students who are interested in all those pathways,” she said.

The program starts in the summer around August with a four-day intensive kickoff to get students thinking about what they want to study in the months ahead. Students get to attend field trips and meet with environmental professionals. One upcoming field trip will take students to the Andrews Lake area on Molas Pass to learn how snow affects watersheds and ecosystems in the San Juan Mountains, Kuenzi said.

Students are encouraged to take charge during the summit, she said. Adults don’t introduce student presenters or moderate presentation times or question-and-answer sessions – it’s in the students’ hands.

Students also provide input about what subjects would be interesting for upcoming trips and what later summits might focus on.

After the presentations, students had seven different interactive FLC campus experiences of their choosing, Kuenzi said. Subjects included a fluids lab in the physics and engineering department; analytical chemistry; biology; Southwest Studies; and composting.


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