Bluffton students fight water quality issues with science

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Bluffton High School seniors, from left, Decker Paulmeier, Will Schmidt, Owen Latchford and Drew Lee discuss the design and development aspect of a project that was recognized as a state finalist in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest. PHOTO BY GWYNETH

As Bluffton residents flocked to town and county council meetings to address and protest the area's rapid development, local students took an equally ardent approach with a class assignment by tackling biodiversity losses and water quality issues created by that growth.

A three-pronged attack by Timothy Chase's Bluffton High School Advanced Placement (AP) environmental science class earned them a place as one of five South Carolina schools recognized in the nationwide Samsung Solve for Tomorrow contest.

"It started as project for the class for something called the 'AP with WE Service,' an educational program that combines academic knowledge with real-life application and community service," Chase said. Students are required to apply a minimum of 10 classroom hours with at least 20 hours of community service.

The competition encourages students "to solve real-world issues in their communities using classroom skills in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM)," according to Samsung's announcement.

The class initially broke into teams but then merged when their separate ideas converged into a plan to create floating wetlands.

At the beginning of the school year, Chase showed them videos made by last year's three national Samsung winners to inspire them, saying that was what students around the country were doing and said they were capable of the same kind of work. Once the students joined forces, they asked Chase to enter them in the Samsung competition.

The submitted project would not only provide a way for native wetland plants to clean the water, but create a habitat from plants grown by the students that would attract endangered pollinators and float the whole garden on a platform made completely of 100 percent post-consumer waste.

"We have a lot of golf courses with ponds that fill with excess nutrients from fertilizer runoff and neighborhoods ponds get the same thing from people fertilizing their lawns," said senior Drew Lee.

When Lee and classmate Decker Paulmeier searched for floating wetlands on the internet, they found commercial platforms at $20 to $40 per square foot, which would be cost-prohibitive for most community organizations.

"Floating wetlands are just an artificial island that holds vegetation," said Lee, a member of the design and development team. "The plants' roots grow into the water and uptake all those excess nutrients. They also collect excess sediment and pollutants in the water. These floating wetlands mimic all of the filtering qualities of a natural wetland, but you can artificially put them into drainage ponds."

The class looked at recycling and focused on using readily available two-liter plastic bottles that Chase had already collected for various class projects.

The platform will float because of several whole and capped bottles joined in the center. Surrounding these bottles are upended bottles with the bottoms removed and filled with plastic bottle caps to which plant roots can cling as they grow toward the water. Collection will begin after Christmas when the students have a place to store the bottles and bottle caps.

The agriculture team is researching specific types of non-invasive plants that will fulfill the team's requirements for filtration, pollinator habitation and attractiveness.

"There are certain plants that need nutrients that won't be found in ponds," said Alex Swetnam. "We need to specify which are able to absorb the most harmful nutrients and are able to grow efficiently. We're looking more at perennials so it makes the floating wetlands self-sustaining."

Swetnam said as a marketing tool, they were including plants that are visually appealing such as a blue iris and spider lily. The team has examined projects carried out by Clemson University, which installed two floating wetlands with numerous native plants. In the science lab's hydroponic garden, 11 native milkweed seedlings -highly attractive to hungry butterflies - are being nurtured.

On Dec. 13, Samsung announced that Ten Oak Middle School in Myrtle Beach was its choice to represent South Carolina in the Solve for Tomorrow competition.

Though the Bluffton team didn't make the final cut, their project remains important to them and their community.

Swetnam said nearby golf courses and neighborhoods were quite interested in the future prospect of installing the floating wetlands in their ponds, so the class already has potential clients as well as a project that almost anyone can recreate.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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