By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — A pair of Lewiston-Porter science teachers are set to receive national honors for a project nearly two years in the making.
After guiding a group of students through the process of testing various Niagara County drinking water for drugs like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and caffeine, Colleen Glor and Michelle Hinchliffe caught the attention of the North American Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
Now, they’re the organization’s 2012 choice for its Menzie Environmental Education Award and they will be heading to Long Beach, Calif. Nov. 11 to accept the distinction as part of a national conference.
“I don’t think any high school teachers have ever won this award, ever,” Hinchliffe said.
In a rather fitting coincidence, the event’s keynote speaker will be Ed Begley Jr., an actor and environmentalist who grew up in Western New York and attended elementary school at Stella Niagara in Lewiston.
Though the pair will be the first high school teachers to win the award, which comes with a $1,000 prize and a plaque, they will share honors with University at Buffalo’s chemistry professor Diana Aga, who’s responsible for providing the students a facility and equipment to use.
Aga’s outreach allowed the students to begin their study, which uses water from the Lewiston wastewater treatment plant, the Niagara River and even the high school’s drinking water.
They have full access to a lab on the sixth floor of the school’s Natural Sciences Complex, where they’ve worked with researcher David Stewart, a Youngstown native and Lew-Port Class of 2001 graduate himself, to find any traces of the drugs.
Once they did, the students began looking into what it could mean to the natural life in the area’s waterways to have these drugs present. They’re also examining possible correlations between cold and flu season and the presence of over-the-counter medications.
“To analyze one of their samples it’s $500,” Aga said, explaining testing procedures for pharmaceuticals force the high cost in laboratories. “The equipment here is $150,000. So to analyze the samples here themselves it saves them a lot of money.”
But the teachers aren’t the only ones excited by the award. The students are flying high knowing their work is being noticed, and by a group with as much clout in the scientific community as SETAC.
The students are excited to be using the high-tech machinery and working towards a result they can be proud of achieving. Collin Kemeny, Emily Marra and Zachary Hayes have each been involved in the project since its inception and will be moving on from Lew-Port at the end of the academic year.
But they’ve all noted an increased awareness of science and mathematics in the real world they live in and once they’re done, they plan on pursuing careers in the field.
“This definitely made me realize I want to go into the sciences,” Kemeny said.
“If you look at the way education has been going, this is exactly what the state wants,” Hinchliffe said. “They’ve been focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It’s great these kids are looking to keep going on.”