Glacier Peak students working with tiny organisms to solve big problems

SNOHOMISH — Scientists trying to find an alternative fuel source or wanting to beat world hunger have new allies.

Students at Glacier Peak High School.

Tami Caraballo’s three biotechnology classes are currently conducting experiments to improve water quality and find ways to grow more algae. This way, they can figure out if the aquatic plant can be used for fuel or for food.

“We would alleviate food hunger with algae,” Caraballo said. “Algae is relatively cheap and easy to grow.”

The work can be done thanks to a $10,000 grant provided by Washington STEM, a statewide and Seattle-based nonprofit organization that promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. The money will help pay for materials, training and travel expenses, Caraballo said.

STEM awarded other 13 projects across the state, including one in Monroe.

“The project at Glacier Peak High School is a great example of the collaborative spirit igniting STEM education in Washington,” said Carolyn Landel, chief programming officer at Washington STEM, in an email. “In addition to partnering with another Washington STEM grantee, they are bringing in professionals to help bring STEM to life for students. This is the type of innovation teaching and learning needed to prepare our kids to succeed in the 21st century.”

Glacier Peak students will receive help from professionals in the biotechnology industry and University of Washington and even from other students at Cleveland High School in Seattle, which received an award for a similar project last year.

Since January, students have been growing algae in four different beakers at the school’s greenhouse. They are also finding ways to cheaply improve and test water quality.

The students are also trying to increase fat and protein in the algae. By increasing the protein, it could be used a as food source; by increasing fat, it could be used as a fuel.

Caraballo applied for the grant more than three months ago. With the money, she can now go on a two-day training trip to Austin. The money can also be use for school trips, so the students can present their projects in different conferences, such as one in Bellevue next March.

The work is expected to go beyond Caraballo’s three biotechnology classes. Students from one physics and one computer-aided drafting and design class are also helping with this project.

Students are benefiting in different ways, she said. They are trying to solve an unanswered question and can develop the lessons into a career.

“This is a vehicle that can launch the kids into a career they haven’t thought before,” Caraballo said.

Work is scheduled to be done all this semester, and probably will continue for the next school year, she said.

In one empty room, three students worked in the past couple of weeks on a flow cytometer, a device used to count and measure cells. This device can check water quality, among other things. Students are expected to use this device to check on the algae, but they have another assignment.

The device costs tens of thousands of dollars, so students are working to build another one with cheaper materials. That way, people in developing countries could build their own.

The students are eager to do the work, in part because it has the potential to change the world.

“It’s pretty exciting that something you design in the corner of the United States might be a big thing,” senior Matt Hamlin, 17, said.

Junior Dan Miller, 17, believes the work is making him and his classmates pioneers in improving lifestyle and environment in a global scale. “It’s a new frontier. It’s exciting because it hasn’t been done before,” Miller said.

Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; adominguez @heraldnet.com.

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