A student's investigation into biofuel finds support and mentorship in the Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums.
Having utilized Science Buddies resources in previous years, Naima Raza was no stranger to science fairs or to Science Buddies when she consulted Experts in the Ask an Expert forum about her 8th grade environmental science project. With the assistance of an Expert from Bio-Rad Laboratories, Naima turned her interest in biofuels into an award-winning project.
For Naima, Science Buddies resources, Project Ideas, and Ask an Expert forums have proven both inspirational and invaluable as she has prepared, designed, and executed school science projects over the last several years. Before working on her environmental science project for her 8th grade science fair, Naima had already conducted two science fair projects on environmental science topics, starting with a project in the 6th grade on solar desalination of saltwater. At the time, Naima found the idea that the sun alone could turn salt water into fresh water fascinating. "That the process could also be applied to helping solve a widespread world issue was even more significant," recalls Naima. "I was sincerely interested in making a difference and helping the world become a better place."
That sentiment has continued to guide Naima's research and interest in science. In the 7th grade, she explored the role of substrates in microbial fuel cells. When asked "why" she thinks it is important for students to tackle environmental science questions, her answer is immediate and simple: "Working on environmental science projects is logical!"
"Everybody knows the rapid and dangerous change that the world is going through, and we are already seeing the harmful effects," says Naima. "How can we disregard this issue so easily? The environment affects everything! For example, environmental changes such as climate change are creating and spreading new diseases and making humans even more vulnerable to common diseases. If we can first focus on making our Earth more sustainable, then I'm sure that solving other issues will become easier."
Science Buddies Offers Inspiration and Guidance
Naima's 6th and 7th grade science projects were both inspired by Science Buddies Project Ideas. For each project, she adapted a Science Buddies idea to address her own questions, resulting in a custom experiment each year. When it was time to begin her 8th grade project, Naima returned to Science Buddies and to the Ask an Expert forums where she had received past assistance from volunteer Expert Donna Hardy of Bio-Rad Laboratories. As Naima considered her 8th grade project, she had a number of potential projects in mind and used the Ask an Expert forums to talk over her ideas with Experts, including Donna, a process that helped her better understand the demands and feasibility (in terms of timing, concept, and materials) of each project.
For Naima, finding the right project took time, but getting feedback from Experts helped her continue to refine and redirect her energies and interests. "I hear stories about other students who are naturally curious about a particular subject and do a science fair project about that subject. That sounds incredibly simple, but in reality that never happened to me," admits Naima. "I had to dig in to explore my own passion."
The 'aha' moment did happen, however. After researching cellulosic ethanol, Naima says she immediately thought about newspapers. She asked herself, "can I create ethanol from newspaper waste?" Her background research showed that newspapers had been tested for cellulosic ethanol production, but Naima was interested in what affect pretreatment might have.
Building upon her interest in cellulosic ethanol and assimilating Donna's advice into her project design, Naima narrowed down her focus and began working on her 8th grade project, "The NEWspaper Fuel: Enhancing Cellulosic Ethanol Production." The project explored the process of pretreating newspaper to create ethanol (a biofuel). Her experiment tested two different pretreatment methods, one using ethylene glycol (the organosolv process pretreatment method) and one using hydrogen peroxide (the oxidative delignification pretreatment method), to evaluate the effectiveness of each compared to newspapers that have not been pretreated.
A Mentor's Assistance
According to Naima, one of the biggest challenges in creating the experimental design for her project was the heavy reliance on chemistry, a subject to which, as an 8th grader, she had limited previous exposure. Donna, a long-time volunteer at Ask an Expert, helped Naima work through areas of confusion, served as a guide while Naima shaped her experimental design, and helped Naima procure background and research materials to further shape and inform her research.
"It was a great pleasure to be a mentor for Naima on her 8th grade science fair project," says Donna. "I had also advised her on her 7th grade project, a microbial fuel cell project. For her 8th grade project, which was a study on the feasibility of producing cellulosic ethanol using various pretreatment methods to delignify newspaper, Naima took the time to read and understand the scientific literature on her subject. This required learning advanced chemistry concepts but gave her the background she needed to develop a unique project idea."
"There was a lot of chemistry involved," agrees Naima. "All of the quantities and steps had to be very accurate, and that's where reading scientific papers and discussing [them] with Donna helped drastically. It took me three trials to finalize the experimental procedure, but in the end I learned a lot of neat chemistry!"
With Donna's help at Ask an Expert, Naima developed advanced chemical procedures for treating newspapers, procedures that had not been tested before. "She did an outstanding job of designing an experiment with the resources that she had available using homemade equipment and culture media," says Donna.
From Start to Finish
With her experimental design in place, and the project was underway, Naima continued to exchange information with Donna, checking in at each stage of the project, sharing results, and asking questions. The mentorship that developed on the Ask an Expert forums was inspiring to watch unfold. Spanning a period of approximately six months, the "thread" at Ask an Expert on Naima's project contains more than 175 posts.
From Naima's perspective, completing the project without Donna's assistance would have been much more difficult, in part because to successfully work on her project, she had to find ways to approach testing close to home. "I do not live in a university town, and I did not have the opportunity to work in a laboratory or interact with professors," says Naima.
"Although I was confined to my basement as my lab, Donna was incredible in helping me understand the background concepts behind my project, helping me develop the chemistry-advanced procedure, helping me analyze odd results, suggesting improvements on my scientific report, and overall helping me complete the project within my location and budget constraints."
After all the testing, it was time to analyze her data and results. For Naima, this was not only a challenging aspect of the project but one of the most rewarding. "Offering a glimpse into the scientist she is becoming, Naima recalls, fondly, "the point where I lean back on my chair and look at the final graphs on my computer screen. I have interpreted and analyzed the data, and it all makes sense now. At this point, I have obtained meaningful conclusions which I can relate to potential applications. The conclusions link right back my goal—I have attempted to aid our planet in my own way!"
In the end, Naima's diligent research and hard work was recognized. At her regional fair, Naima won seven awards, including the "Best in Division - Junior" award. She moved on to the Canada Wide Science Fair, where she won a Gold Medal, in addition to a University of Western Ontario Entrance Scholarship, "Energy Challenge - Junior" Award, and the "Renewable Energy - Junior" Award.
A Scientific Journey Unfolds
From its early roots in the desalination project, Naima's interest in environmental science has continued to deepen and evolve. This year, Naima is continuing her work, extending her research into biofuels and adding to the mix of scientific fields one of her favorites, microbiology. While she doesn't plan on working directly in the field of environmental science, she hopes to continue to explore her interest in environmental science through biology. Naima's got the big picture in mind: "I want my research to affect others positively, and contribute towards saving our planet."
The Science Buddies Ask an Expert forums are staffed by volunteer Experts like Donna Hardy from Bio-Rad. Individuals interested in volunteering with Science Buddies can find out more on our volunteer pages. Bio-Rad sponsors the Biotechnology Techniques Interest Area at Science Buddies.