By Nick Burnaugh
Special to the MHA Times
The North Dakota oil boom has captured the interest of environmental researchers both in-state and nationwide. Hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as “fracking,” has spurred discussion about oil development’s long-term impacts on the Fort Berthold community.
Currently, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College is collaborating with the University of Colorado Boulder to develop a citizen science project that would give Fort Berthold K-12 students the opportunity to track oil development’s effects on their environment. CU Boulder will be funding the creation of kits that would allow students to monitor air and water quality.
A team of CU Boulder researchers and staff arrived in New Town, ND on Oct. 16. Over the course of a weekend, the team attended a series of workshops hosted by Kerry Hartman, the academic dean of NHSC. Various K-12 teachers and NHSC college professors attended the meetings, advising the team on how they feel the citizen science project can respond to their students’ needs. Based on the teachers’ feedback, CU Boulder will create monitoring kits that will fit with the teachers’ lesson plans. In May 2016, prototypes for these kits will be made available for students and teachers to test for themselves.
The idea for the citizen science project began as a collaboration among Hartman, NHSC chemistry professor Thomas Abe and Jen Shannon, an assistant professor in anthropology at CU Boulder. Together, they decided that this project could empower students to learn more about oil development’s environmental effects.
“It’s really hard to make claims or to advocate without having data,” Shannon explained. “This project really empowers young people not just to collect data but to understand where it comes from and how it’s produced.”
Joe Ryan, a professor of environmental engineering at CU Boulder, will be involved in the creation of the kits and monitoring devices. He’s also the faculty director for the AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, which will be assisting in the development of the teachers’ lesson plans. The challenge will be tailoring the lessons to different grade levels.
When discussing the citizen science project’s potential for informing students about the oil boom, Ryan said that many students might feel powerless in regards to oil development’s future course. “These educational tools should help students feel like they can learn something about it and make a difference,” he said.
Some teachers expressed concerns that their students might not understand the implications that oil development has on both an environmental and economic level.
As Ryan explained, it’s important not to harbor bias against the oil industry when investigating its effects on the environment. Everyone is part of the demand for fossil fuels, he said, remarking that he himself used a lot of fossil fuels traveling to North Dakota for the workshop. Oil development is going to happen, he said, but there are ways to make sure it happens responsibly.
Aside from the citizen science project, there are other studies concerning oil development’s effects. An NHSC study led by Hartman is addressing concerns about the amount of dust being kicked up due to an increase in traffic generated by the oil boom.
Using filters set up outside the college, NHSC is currently monitoring air quality for the presence of particulate matter, or dust particles smaller than 10 micrometers. At this size, dust particles are far more likely to be inhaled into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, resulting in substantial health risks. This student-assisted project is also analyzing the dust particles for signs of carcinogenic substances, Hartman said.
While the citizen science project will focus largely on monitoring air and water quality, the teachers who attended the workshops offered a range of other ideas. Several suggested that students could gather data about the environmental effects of oil fields on local wildlife. Another popular idea was that students could fact check the news media’s coverage of the oil and gas industry.
All the data will be collected directly by students so they can meaningfully understand and apply their knowledge. A website will be developed that will allow students to collect, visualize and share their data.
Nick Burnaugh is a senior journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is part of a research team from CU that is currently collaborating with the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in developing a citizen science project to help students monitor the effects of oil development.