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Western Sierra students follow NASA’s lead on green fuels

By: Teresa O'Hanlon, Placer Herald correspondent
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Advanced Placement Biology teacher Beth Dixon is building a green lab that may fuel more than the minds of her students.

Her 12th graders-are filling it up with tiny halophyte seeds that will soon become pickle weed, known to scientists as Salicornia. The weed is easily found in coastal regions around the world, often flourishing on futile strips of land between California beaches and freeways.

And while the Salicornia soon to sprout in Dixon’s classroom is a common salt-marsh plant, her students are building more than a sandbar.

Their saltwater ecosystem will eventually hold rich algae and resilient mollies, fish that will fertilize the special project.

As students observe the Salicornia growing, their harvest will produce oils that can be refined into a highly desirable green giant: aviation biofuel.

“NASA is looking for ways to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels by creating sustainable plots of high-quality plants in areas that wouldn’t be used by traditional agriculture – rocky, salty soil,” said Dixon, a middle and high school science teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy who spent a week with NASA researchers this summer. “The research experience was outstanding because I directly participated in the research. Our 12-teacher team learned how to use the NASA equipment and monitored the saltwater ecosystems for one week. We also worked with NASA researchers to develop ways to bring eXtreme Green practices into our classrooms.”

NASA selects 50 middle and high school teachers annually to participate in all-expenses-paid summer research at various NASA field centers. The goal is to expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) knowledge by creating collaborative networks among educators across the nation.

Dixon has worked closely with NASA for the last three years to help inspire students to choose STEM careers and embrace real-world situations in their learning.

After spending a week at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio for their eXtreme Green Research Experience, Dixon was eager to share with her students how Salicornia oil may become the biofuel of the future.

“It is amazing to be able to have this experience, when only three other high schools in the nation are participating,” said senior Kamber Alldredge, 17. “To be modeling the same experiment that NASA is doing, it makes me feel like I’m actually doing real research and exploring new options for renewable energy.”

While going “green” has become a popular buzzword, it does not always mesh with the business of sustainability for the entire biosphere. Dixon’s students are building an alternative, renewable and sustainable sandbar that does not use freshwater, traditional food crops or arable land. The result is what NASA calls an eXtreme Green lab that promotes sustainability for all ecosystems.

“I think it will be a productive way to use spaces that we are not using already,” shared senior Camden Womeldorf, 17. “It’s cool we’re using the plants for something environmentally friendly by creating a product for airplane fuel.”

While Western Sierra students will not be shipping their Salicornia oil off to a refinery, they will study plant metabolism and energy conservation, and send their research to NASA laboratories.

“We’re putting soil that no one else wants to good use,” pointed out senior Alissabeth Garcia, 17. “It’s a different way of thinking. Imagine the possibilities of using this for good in other areas.”

As Dixon toured the NASA Glenn facility this summer, she videotaped every demonstration so her students could tour the research labs “virtually” all year long. As a member of the Green Lab Teacher Advisory Board, Dixon is working to develop lessons for teachers across the state.

“I’m developing lessons that link the green lab directly to California seventh grade life science, biology and AP biology standards and working to share these with other teachers who want to be involved with the project,” she added. “I’m excited to integrate our green lab with the new inquiry framework for AP Biology.”

For teachers and students interested in becoming in-volved with the Western Sierra STEM Night in the spring, or want more information about setting up a portable green lab at their school, send an email to bdixon@rocklinacademy.org.