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AR Chemistry and the Promise of Algae

For most, the word algae calls to mind a carpet of green scum atop a body of water. But to this year’s AR Chemistry students, the word holds the promise of a more sustainable world.

“There are many unique ways algae can be used,” said science teacher Tascha Knowlton—from biofuel to biodegradable plastic to medicine. And because algae also captures large amounts of carbon, it’s becoming an important tool for a greener future.

Algae first captured upper schoolers’ attention last spring, when Tascha asked her students, including those enrolled in her upcoming AR Chemistry class, to research the organism for an end-of-term project. The students were so excited by what they found, they asked if they could make algae the focus of their AR Chemistry research. While Tascha had been planning to continue the graphite research started in Research Chemistry (the original name of AR Chemistry), she was happy to change course to follow the students’ interest.

And though there were several directions the students could take their research, the six seniors in this year’s class decided to focus on two: the use of algae as a wastewater treatment and as a substitute for limestone in cement, both of which contribute to a more sustainable world. As a wastewater treatment, algae provides a more effective alternative to the chemicals and bacteria that remove pollutants in water; the byproducts of this process can also be used to create bioproducts. In cement, the calcium carbonate byproduct of algae can take the place of limestone, which lessens the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during limestone mining.

Rowland Hall students learned about algae at Utah's Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.

Class member Quinn Orgain testing water at the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.


This fall, the students began diving into current research on these subjects, as well as writing their own proposals and abstracts and conducting lab work. One group studied the effect of two types of algae, chlorella and Scenedesmus, in wastewater, and the other focused on the use of Emiliania huxleyi, a special type of algae that produces a calcium carbonate shell, in biocement. They also spoke with experts, including Dr. Ronald Sims from Utah State University, who took them on a tour of the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, which recently piloted an algae wastewater cleaning program, and biocement specialists. These opportunities to immerse themselves in their chosen areas of research made a big impression on the young scientists.

These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values.—Gabriella Miranda, class of 2024

“These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values,” said Gabriella Miranda, a member of the wastewater group. “Truly, I think the AR program embodies academic freedom and gives students valuable insight.”

By the spring, the class was ready to take their work on the road. In early March, both groups competed at the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair, where the wastewater team placed third in the Biology & Microbiology category and the biocement team placed second in the Chemistry & Biochemistry category. Later that month, they traveled to New Orleans for the American Chemical Society spring conference, where they confidently shared their work with attendees from around the world.

“Their posters and how they presented themselves was on par or better than any undergraduate posters, and there are hundreds,” said Tascha. And she wasn’t the only one impressed—many attendees shared their amazement that the Rowland Hall group was still in high school; one undergraduate even said he wished he’d had this type of experience before college. Tascha hoped moments like these provided the students with perspective about their experience, showed them their capabilities, and gave them the confidence they’ll need to hit the ground running as undergraduates. “They’ll be able to jump in and expand opportunities in college, versus having to get familiar with the work later,” said Tascha.

The experience may even inspire careers.

“Prior to taking AR Chemistry, I wasn’t particularly passionate about any given subject. With the pressure of college majors looming, I often dismissed the decision entirely,” said class member Halle Baughman. “Through this in-depth investigation, I was able to explore my passion for sustainability by integrating it with my interest in the sciences. I found a topic with the promise of success and my personal investment.” As a result, Halle changed her indicated major from undecided to sustainability and design.

“My project excited me in ways I couldn’t imagine,” said Halle. “The process was truly life-changing.”

Learn more about the AR Chemistry class’s time in New Orleans.

AR Chemistry and the Promise of Algae

For most, the word algae calls to mind a carpet of green scum atop a body of water. But to this year’s AR Chemistry students, the word holds the promise of a more sustainable world.

“There are many unique ways algae can be used,” said science teacher Tascha Knowlton—from biofuel to biodegradable plastic to medicine. And because algae also captures large amounts of carbon, it’s becoming an important tool for a greener future.

Algae first captured upper schoolers’ attention last spring, when Tascha asked her students, including those enrolled in her upcoming AR Chemistry class, to research the organism for an end-of-term project. The students were so excited by what they found, they asked if they could make algae the focus of their AR Chemistry research. While Tascha had been planning to continue the graphite research started in Research Chemistry (the original name of AR Chemistry), she was happy to change course to follow the students’ interest.

And though there were several directions the students could take their research, the six seniors in this year’s class decided to focus on two: the use of algae as a wastewater treatment and as a substitute for limestone in cement, both of which contribute to a more sustainable world. As a wastewater treatment, algae provides a more effective alternative to the chemicals and bacteria that remove pollutants in water; the byproducts of this process can also be used to create bioproducts. In cement, the calcium carbonate byproduct of algae can take the place of limestone, which lessens the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere during limestone mining.

Rowland Hall students learned about algae at Utah's Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.

Class member Quinn Orgain testing water at the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility.


This fall, the students began diving into current research on these subjects, as well as writing their own proposals and abstracts and conducting lab work. One group studied the effect of two types of algae, chlorella and Scenedesmus, in wastewater, and the other focused on the use of Emiliania huxleyi, a special type of algae that produces a calcium carbonate shell, in biocement. They also spoke with experts, including Dr. Ronald Sims from Utah State University, who took them on a tour of the Central Valley Water Reclamation Facility, which recently piloted an algae wastewater cleaning program, and biocement specialists. These opportunities to immerse themselves in their chosen areas of research made a big impression on the young scientists.

These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values.—Gabriella Miranda, class of 2024

“These classes really provide an outlet to explore personal areas of interest and use your education to make an impact that resonates with you and your values,” said Gabriella Miranda, a member of the wastewater group. “Truly, I think the AR program embodies academic freedom and gives students valuable insight.”

By the spring, the class was ready to take their work on the road. In early March, both groups competed at the University of Utah Science & Engineering Fair, where the wastewater team placed third in the Biology & Microbiology category and the biocement team placed second in the Chemistry & Biochemistry category. Later that month, they traveled to New Orleans for the American Chemical Society spring conference, where they confidently shared their work with attendees from around the world.

“Their posters and how they presented themselves was on par or better than any undergraduate posters, and there are hundreds,” said Tascha. And she wasn’t the only one impressed—many attendees shared their amazement that the Rowland Hall group was still in high school; one undergraduate even said he wished he’d had this type of experience before college. Tascha hoped moments like these provided the students with perspective about their experience, showed them their capabilities, and gave them the confidence they’ll need to hit the ground running as undergraduates. “They’ll be able to jump in and expand opportunities in college, versus having to get familiar with the work later,” said Tascha.

The experience may even inspire careers.

“Prior to taking AR Chemistry, I wasn’t particularly passionate about any given subject. With the pressure of college majors looming, I often dismissed the decision entirely,” said class member Halle Baughman. “Through this in-depth investigation, I was able to explore my passion for sustainability by integrating it with my interest in the sciences. I found a topic with the promise of success and my personal investment.” As a result, Halle changed her indicated major from undecided to sustainability and design.

“My project excited me in ways I couldn’t imagine,” said Halle. “The process was truly life-changing.”

Learn more about the AR Chemistry class’s time in New Orleans.

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