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Teacher Patty Naples, third from left, stands with The AquaLeaders, who are, from left, seventh-grader Isabella Scheper, seventh-grader Steven Flynn, eighth-grader Anastasia Hultquist, eighth-grader Owen Nowalsky and seventh-grader Mackenzie Ade.

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Late last year as classes at Assumption Regional Catholic School were winding down, junior high science teacher Patricia Naples was offering an opportunity for students to engage in some science learning over the summer and into this school year.

To the surprise of some of their classmates, two eighth-graders and three seventh-graders volunteered, jumping at the chance to do something science-related over the summer. The students, under the direction of Naples, formed a team to compete in the Lexus Land and Water Challenge, a part of the Lexus Eco Challenge, which focuses on solving or improving environmental issues. The team’s topic was “Quality of Drinking Water in NJ Schools,” specifically focusing on lead contamination.

They decided to call their team The AquaLeaders. If the name sounds superhero-like, it may not be too far off based on my recent conversation with this fab five of science. Their commitment to the project, work ethic demonstrated and the results of their work may have earned them a super-science status among the school administration, educators and students.

The AquaLeaders consist of Anastasia Hultquist, Owen Nowalsky, both eighth-graders, and Mackenzie Ade, Steven Flynn and Isabella Scheper, seventh-graders. 

The team met a few times prior to starting individual and group research over the summer. Each of the students described the experience of working together across grade levels and throughout summer as an enjoyable and positive experience, according to Naples. Owen explained the difference between the science fair and a project like the LEXUS Land and Water Challenge: “The science fair is something we are required to participate in. This challenge is something we choose to participate in."

Roles were assigned, and while it was a team effort throughout the project, areas of responsibility were as follows: Anastasia and Steven handled research, Isabella and Steven collected data, Owen and Isabella coordinated the analysis of the data, Mackenzie worked on the private vs. public school information, Anastasia and Owen focused on other toxin levels, Steven and Owen did student testing, Anastasia took the role of reporting results, and Isabella and Mackenzie handled community outreach. Overall, the team believes they spent at least thirty days working on the project, although that work was spread over a number of months.

The team toured the Atlantic County Utilities Authority water testing lab. They Skyped with professor Cathleen Doherty and graduate student Sean Stratton. They traveled to Trenton to meet with Gary Brune from NJ Futures to learn about important issues related to water quality in schools. Mackenzie had the task of collecting samples of water from five private schools. The team sent the samples to Rutgers University to be analyzed. The team also worked with Dr. Stephen Kubricki of Stockton University. With additional research collected on public schools through internet research, The AquaLeaders conducted a statistical analysis of the data to determine whether there is a relationship between the socio-economic factors and/or minority makeup of school districts and water quality.

The team found it surprisingly difficult and frustrating to collect the data at some points in the research. Public school districts are mandated to post the results of their water analysis on their websites. However, the students found the results were not always posted, and if it was, they really had to search the websites to find the information. They also found out that private schools are not mandated to test their water. When asked what else surprised the team, Anastasia said she was surprised to learn that 11 cities and two counties in New Jersey have higher lead counts than the water in Flint, Michigan.

The Environmental Protection Agency states that water samples from schools only have to be reported to the Department of Education if there is lead content over the actionable level of 15 parts per billion. Bottled water has a limit of 5 ppb.

Ultimately, the team’s research led them to the conclusion there is not a “safe” content of lead in water, especially in schools where there are children. Lead can have lasting effects on children, such as slower growth, decreased IQ, less attention span and other effects, some of which can cause serious health issues in adults. The report of the results was submitted by the team this past week.

The AquaLeaders are continuing to work hard to raise awareness about the importance of water quality at home and in schools. The team looks forward to hearing how they fare in the Lexus challenge. The results and announcement of winners are due out in early December. They hope to present their final report to their community in the near future.

Throughout our communication for this story, Naples had a quote at the bottom of her e-mail from Albert Einstein: “Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think."

Clearly, regardless of the results of The AquaLeaders' challenge submission, the opportunity Naples has provided for the team is training the students' minds to think. Not just about today or today’s classroom lesson but to think about the future and health of all.

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