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Declan presenting at the science fair. Photo by Cameron Hickey

Column: How a reporting trip to coal country inspired my 7-year-old’s science fair project

Being a science journalist has its privileges — you get to go places and do things very few people ever get to do. I’ve flown in a helicopter over a bubbling pool of lava in Hawaii, stood inside the control room at a nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan, and, in what is still one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had, I was once lowered down deep below the streets of Detroit to wade through raw sewage inside one of the city’s aging sewer pipes.

A recent trip to the coal mines of West Virginia afforded me a unique opportunity to bring what I learned in the field back home — in this case for my son’s science fair project.

For a series for the NewsHour on “clean coal” we traveled to West Virginia to witness mountaintop removal coal mining first hand. After a tour of the process inside a mine, where we saw the devastating industrial process up close, we ventured outside the property with an environmental scientist who focused on the effects of the mining activities on the local water supply.

What we saw was shocking — what looked like clean, clear spring water flowing down the side of a mountain was really a slow moving waterfall of calcification.

Calcified stream in West Virginia. Photo by Cameron Hickey.

Calcified stream in West Virginia. Photo by Cameron Hickey.

By blowing up these mountains in search of coal, all kinds of compounds were released into the environment and were flowing through the natural waterways. A mustard colored substance covered the leaves and roots of the trees. Stalagmites that should have taken millennia to form were crusting over still growing plants in mere weeks.

Scientists were measuring, not for specific contaminants, but for conductivity. Increased conductivity is a canary in the coal mine: It can imply a change in salinity or the presence of heavy metals in the water — a signal there could be pollution and that further analysis is required.

Dirty snow collected outside the house. Photo by Cameron Hickey

Dirty snow collected outside the house. Photo by Cameron Hickey

Prior to this trip, my seven year old was already thinking about doing a science fair project related to pollution, but we hadn’t yet settled on an actual idea. In the interim we had a big snowstorm hit New York City, leaving in its wake massive piles of snow that quickly turned black.

When I got home and saw those piles I remembered what we had just learned about water pollution and pitched my kid on a simple idea — if the grownup real scientists we were documenting could use a simple measure like conductivity, couldn’t we do it at home too?

A quick Google search yielded a method of measuring conductivity using a run-of-the-mill digital multimeter, which we already own. Declan and his younger brother Calder set out with me and my wife to gather samples: first, the clean snow that was still around on our roof, then the dirty snow piled up on the sidewalk next to our house.

The team collecting samples from Gowanus Canal. Photo by Lauren Feeney

The team collecting samples from Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Lauren Feeney

Then we went to an infamous local water source that I knew from previous reporting was quite polluted: the Gowanus Canal. To round out our toxic water sampling, we also headed up to Newtown Creek — another Superfund site where we encountered a challenge to find actual access to the water. We never did get a direct sample, but what we happened upon was actually better: a giant puddle of disgusting black sludge oozing out of an industrial facility and flowing right into the creek.

Standing on a public sidewalk, we went to get a sample. A local security guard yelled at us and told us we were not allowed to be there, even threatening to call the police. I faced a complicated parenting/journalism conundrum: Do I model compliance with an authority figure (a lesson that evidence would suggest we have failed to teach our children) or do I model the confrontational resistance that my journalism brain demands?

East River sampling. Photo by Lauren Feeney

East River sampling. Photo by Lauren Feeney

To the dismay of my wife, my mouth chose the latter before my parenting brain finished balancing the risk-benefit. I yelled “Go ahead and call the police! This is a public street.” Five minutes later, with our seemingly toxic water sample collected, we were back in the car headed to our final sampling site: the East River.

The sample set, ready to be tested for conductivity. Photo by Cameron Hickey

The sample set, ready to be tested for conductivity. Photo by Cameron Hickey

Once at home, we added three other types of water to the mix: some algae-filled fish tank water, NYC tap water from our kitchen sink, and distilled water as a control. Using the multimeter, our son took multiple readings from each water sample, and wrote them down in his notes. Then with my help, he plugged the values into a spreadsheet and used a formula to convert the resistance value he measured into a value for conductivity.

Declan taking down resistance measurements to convert to conductivity. Photo by Lauren Feeney

Declan taking down resistance measurements to convert to conductivity. Photo by Lauren Feeney

His results showed that both kinds of snow, as well as the disgusting sludge water from Newtown Creek appeared to have the highest conductivity. It’s hard to say how accurate these results are, but we did learn some valuable lessons about this research and the scientific process.

First, a standard multimeter isn’t a great tool for doing this because getting a consistent reading is difficult. Second, water evaporates if you wait a while between collecting the sample and measuring it, which reduces the consistency of the volumes used for the measurement. Finally, and this was the most important one, doing good science means taking the lessons you learned from the first experiment and applying them the next time.

If he so chooses, our son has many years of science fair projects ahead of him working on this same problem. Thus, much like the grown up scientists we normally cover for the NewsHour, it will take years of research before he’s ready to publish his findings in a journal. So we’re not going to be ambitious yet… we’re happy to wait until fifth grade before his research graces the cover of Science.

WATCH: NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien digs into how mountaintop mining affects life and the environment in West Virginia.

This column originally appeared on Miles O’Brien Productions.

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