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State High's Teen Shale Network: An Unconventional ExtracurricularThe United States Postal Service has nothing on Hannah Good, Kacy Mann, Lena Nyblade and Maria Rodriguez Hertz.

So the mail gets delivered in snow, rain and heat. Big deal. The new State High graduates spent four years conducting valuable scientific research in all kinds of weather as part of the high school’s Teen Shale Network program.

“Looking back, I think I will most remember the times we spent in the field collecting data in the snow, the rain, the wind, and sometimes, the sun,” Mann said. “We went out in almost any weather, but no matter how bad it was, we always made the best of it and had a blast, too. I remember one time when it was just about raining sideways and it was so windy we couldn’t hold our pages down and we finished collecting data in record timing. Then another time when there was a major snowfall several days before, we went out all bundled up with the snow to our knees.”

Mann and her classmates braved the full gamut of conditions as the only students who participated in the Teen Shale Network program since the initial trip in 2014. Working with Penn State scientists and graduate students, student teams collected, analyzed and presented environmental data while researching the possible negative impacts of unconventional hydraulic fracturing mining processes, known as fracking, in the Marcellus Shale region.

It all started in 2013 when Penn State geoscientist Sue Brantley, Nyblade’s mother, approached State High earth sciences teacher Eugene Ruocchio about an idea for a collaboration with high school students.

Brantley, Ruocchio, Penn State geochemist Jennifer Williams and members of the district’s earth sciences department subsequently created a plan for what data the students would collect, and where and how often they would go. The location had to be safe, close enough to the school for a day trip, but yet near a fracking site.

Moshannon Creek in Black Moshannon State Park turned out to be the best bet.

Organizers then decided students, assisted by Penn State scientists, would measure water flow changes, temperature, pH, conductivity, and various chemical signatures in the water, such as strontium, barium, aluminum and salts, to assess the impact of nearby fracking.

In the spring of 2014, 22 ninth-grade earth systems science took the first field trip. They observed a fracking well pad, the local geology, and the path of the Moshannon Creek before stopping at the park and choosing a site for a permanent monitoring station.

Throughout the rest of the school year, students returned monthly to spend entire days collecting data. That May, they created their first scientific research poster and displayed it at the annual Shale Network Conference at the Atherton Hotel in State College.

The next year, earth science teachers and Penn State researchers expanded the program by installing two more monitoring stations downstream from the original one and closer to the fracking wells. Monthly data collection trips continued as before, but the State High students evolved, posing more questions about what the data showed.

“Every year brought on a set of questions, ultimately leading to a different research question the students attempted to address while keeping to the overall theme related to the effects of fracking on Black Moshannon Creek,” Ruocchio said.

As they matured, students who stayed in the program also applied more scientific concepts to the research, all the while increasing their math skills. For example, this year’s students devised a mathematical model to examine barite levels in the stream. Due to time and funds, the model hasn’t been tested yet, but if the program can secure a grant, students could check their work in 2018-19.

“For those students who continued to participate through their junior and senior years, they began to build the program and take true ownership,” Ruocchio said. “The Penn State researchers and the earth science teachers have really stepped back and let the kids truly take over the reins to decide where the program should go from here. It has been quite a transformation to see it grow from its infancy, where kids were just collecting data because they liked being in the field, to true research questions and data analysis. Their desire to see their questions answered is inspiring.”

Rodriguez Hertz, who’s attending Williams College, said she “enjoyed learning science that was not included inside the classroom and really getting to experience the process.”

“We had the viewpoint of coming from only doing science in a classroom where the environment is greatly controlled,” she said. “But out in the field, we never knew what was going to happen, what kinds of variables might arise that we had to take into account. So we were constantly working around new obstacles, not to mention that we had to come up with the point, or hypothesis, of our research ourselves. There wasn’t a set experiment; we made it.”

Mann, bound for Grove City College, said her four years in the program taught her much about “how to work cohesively as a group.”

“From looking at the data, to analyzing it, to putting it together on a poster is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of communication and patience,” she said. “Without this experience, I would not understand just how important strong communication is to a team that works well together.”

While at Lebanon College majoring in physics and chemistry, Good hopes to draw on lessons learned along Moshannon Creek.

“I’m going into the science field so all the research and analysis skills needed will be going with me to college,” she said.

For Mann, her Teen Shale Network high point came in Pittsburgh while presenting a poster at the Geological Society of America’s regional conference.

“It was spectacular to share our data with researchers from different states and hear what they were saying about their projects,” she recalled. “I will never forget how it felt to talk and participate in a conference confidently as a high school student. It’s an opportunity I would have not gotten anywhere else.”

In addition to the GSA’s conference and the Shale Network conferences held locally, Teen Shale Network students have presented their findings at the Critical Zone Observatory Conference at Penn State and the Creek Connections Conference at Allegheny College. They hope to attend the 2018 GSA regional conference in Vermont, spurring their grant writing and fundraising efforts.

That future stands out for Nyblade even as the Teen Shale Network begins to recede in her past.

She’s grateful the program taught her about data analysis, research presentation and group leadership, all of which will be helpful at Carleton College. She’ll never forget the sight of 15 people “crammed into a tiny science office, busily typing away at their computers.”

But her favorite memory? That’s easy: a sense of pride and accomplishment while returning home after a productive day in the field.

“A highpoint for me was after one of the sessions last year,” she said. “I finally felt like we had more of a grasp on our goals and how to analyze our data. Even though it was my last year, I felt like maybe we were finally getting a handle on our goals. It felt like it would continue and do well even after I left.”

By Chris Rosenblum

Photo: Nabil Mark