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Students hold a tadpole at the Raccoon Creek station at the 2013 Science Alliance.
Madison Koenig

Raccoon Creek Partnership Visits the 2013 Science Alliance

Madison Koenig
October 18, 2013

As a group of high school juniors gathered around the plastic tub filled with aquatic creatures, Joseph Jennings encouraged them to come closer.  "Don't be afraid to get to know your fellow earthlings," he teased. "We share the planet with many wonderful creatures."

Jennings is a master's of science and environmental studies student at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.  At the beginning of October, he was a part of a team from the Raccoon Creek Partnership that hosted a station at the 2013 Science Alliance at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS).

Jen Bowman, the organizer for this station and a senior environmental project manager at the Voinovich School's Consortium for Energy, Economics & the Environment (CE3), said she wanted to show students how researchers use aquatic organisms as a marker for overall water quality: "The goal was to teach the students about the important work that scientists do by using aquatic organisms as bio-indicators to determine the health of a stream after acid mine drainage reclamation occurs."

This method is called biological monitoring.  Many animals are unable to live in polluted waters, so when researchers find them in a reclaimed stream, they consider them an indication that water quality is improving.

At the Raccoon Creek station, the students were able to practice biological monitoring.  The team's plastic tubs were filled with creek water, leaves, twigs, and a variety of aquatic organisms.  These included bullfrog tadpoles, dragonfly and damselfly larvae, snails, crayfish, salamanders, and more.  The team also set up a tank with several species of fish commonly found in healthy streams.  The station showed students the diversity of life found in the creek, all of which is affected by acid mine drainage.  Members of the Raccoon Creek team were glad to overhear several students saying that this was their favorite station.

Showing high school students what real research looks like was one of the major goals of the Science Alliance.

Hosted for the fourth year by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Science Alliance invited students from 23 local schools across Pike, Jackson, Scioto, and Ross Counties to visit the former PORTS site.  More than 1,200 students and teachers came to explore stations set up by both private and public partners, including Ohio University, Restoration Services Inc., the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and others.  Students visited 13 different stations for about 10 minutes each.

Other stations focused on topics ranging from the nuclear fuel cycle to groundwater pollutants to the process of decontaminating and decommissioning the former plant.

The Science Alliance aimed to teach students about the history of the plant.  The plant previously produced enriched uranium and was one of three gaseous diffusion plants in the United States.  At the height of the Cold War, it was one the main employers in the area.  As Rick Greene, one of the event coordinators, noted, some of the students' parents and relatives were former PORTS employees.

However, because the plant produced uranium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program, many of its operations had to be kept secret.  Although the plant has been out of operation since 2001, many people in the area still don't know much about it.

Greg Simonton, an event coordinator from the Department of Energy, hoped to change that. "We want to demystify the local lore of the plant," he said.

One of the stations used a game-show format to teach students the history of the plant.  Students divided into two teams and took turns trying to answer questions about the plant before a timer ran out.  The winning team received Smarties, and the losing team received DumDums.

Another station presented artifacts from the plant and the surrounding area.  Mark Hill, the plant historian, showed students items that were found on site.  Some of these were tools for operating the plant, such as a radiation testing device and a red emergency phone that could only be used to dial outgoing calls.

Other artifacts evoked life outside the plant.  Archeologists have found pieces of pottery from the 1920's and '30's, a metal roller skate from the 1950's, and horseshoes from the family-owned farms that used to be on the land.  Nearly 200 archeological sites have been established at PORTS to continue looking for these types of artifacts.

The Science Alliance also focused on the future.  Simonton explained that the event organizers hoped to inspire students to investigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields.  "The event will introduce students to careers they can have locally and will let them see what research looks like," he said.

In the welcome tent, Joe Moore talked with students about the benefits and opportunities these fields provided.  As he told the students, "People in STEM solve problems."