Student takes Water Prize project to national science fair

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PROVIDENCE — For the second year in a row, a La Salle Academy student has competed for the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize.

From June 17 to June 20, rising sophomore Robert Checani and his mentor, biology teacher Leslie Martinelli, attended the national level of the competition in St. Louis.

Checani’s project, “How are bodies of water in Southern New England affected by eutrophication in proximity to sewage treatment plants?” advanced to the national level after being awarded the RI Stockholm Jr. Water Prize at the state science fair.

At the national competition in St. Louis, students and their mentors explored the city.

“We participated in scientific explorations of the area's dams and water projects and had fun experiencing the Arch and the museums,” Martinelli said. “For me it was an exciting experience discussing with other teachers their methods and other science teaching ideas.”

Checani said he knew he wanted to do a project involving eutrophication and sewage plants when he started researching topic ideas. “It focuses on an issue that is prevalent all over the world,” he said.

Eutrophication of bodies of water is caused when excess nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates pollute the water. The increase of nutrients speeds the growth of organisms such as algae, which deplete the oxygen supply in the water when they decompose, causing the death of fish and other life forms in the area. Nearby land plants are then able to grow in the body of water, eventually transforming a pond or lake into dry land, Checani said.

For his experiment, Checani tested four water samples from each of several locations around a wastewater treatment plant. The closest samples were less than one mile away, while the furthest were about 12 miles. He found that the water closest to the plant contained the highest levels of nitrates and phosphates, which lead to eutrophication.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “My hypothesis was right on point.”

Checani also noticed a significant difference in the visual appearance of the sites where he took samples. “The water closest to the plant looked much murkier and greener,” he said. Checani said that the Narragansett Bay Commission is currently working on a $70 million project to significantly reduce the levels of pollutants in the water.

Even though Checani did not advance to the international level of the competition, held in Stockholm, he said he is glad to have had the opportunity. Checani is considering entering La Salle’s science fair again next year, even though it is not required. “There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to test,” he said. “I’d like to test different chemicals and different species of algae. I never realized how big of an issue it is.”

Martinelli, who was recently honored as a Rhode Island finalist for the Presidential Excellence in Teaching Science Award, said that she hopes Checani moves forward with his project.

“Hopefully,” she said, “the experience has encouraged him to continue to pursue science experimentation to a higher level.”

To learn more about the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, visit www.siwi.org/stockholmjuniorwaterprize.