Teen Science Cafe Learns About Mercury Cleanup

A thrilling exploration of environmental science at the Twin Ports Teen Science Cafe! 

High school students crowd together in a brightly lit classroom around a two foot, maze-like structure holding plastic spoons, chopsticks and rubber bands. They watch in anticipation when a marble is dropped into the maze and use their makeshift tools to stop the marbles from moving through the run. Although this activity seems simple, it holds a complex meaning that is teaching future scientists the importance of land preservation and how to heal it. While other teenagers would not want to be anywhere near school on a Friday night in February, these students are going above and beyond what is asked of them. 

Hands-on Activities

This activity was part of the February 16 Twin Ports Teen Science Cafe, hosted by the Swenson College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Assistant Professor in microbiology Dr. Jessica Sieber, along with biology graduate student Ian Halpaus and two undergraduates, biology student Rory Westerman and Chanda Blesi in American Indian Studies, presented on mercury environmental cleanup in the St. Louis watershed. 

In the marble run activity, the marbles represent mercury and the maze is the St. Louis River watershed. Mercury molecules moving through the watershed had to be stopped before they entered into Lake Superior, or the bottom of the marble run. The activity showed different ways to remove toxins from the watershed. All of the possible paths the marbles could take demonstrated the difficulty of mercury removal. 

Photo caption: Teen leaders Micah Schlotec and Elyana Hewitt (left), graduate biology student Ian Halpaus (center) and teen leader Norah Gunderson (right) work to stop marbles from reaching the bottom of the run. The activity helps students learn different approaches to removing pollutants from the environment.

Mercury can be a damaging pollutant that comes from multiple sources, including the atmosphere and legacy pollution from mining. It affects all aspects of an ecosystem, including plants, animals and humans.

“It doesn’t ever go away in toxicity, it just keeps building in the food chain,” Dr. Sieber said.

Demonstrating Complex Ideas

The marble run activity helped demonstrate the research team’s novel approach to reducing the impact of mercury. Their study uses plants and other natural capabilities the land can offer to diminish the impact of mercury, known as bioremediation. 

“In my idea of bioremediation, there’s so much natural capability of organisms to adapt to an environment and then try and find a way to keep that environment in balance,” Dr. Sieber said.

Different microorganisms can adjust to the mercury after being exposed to it over time, which helps prevent damage to the environment. 

“If you’ve got microbes that can very quickly adapt to whatever they're being exposed to in an environment, and then they're also supporting plant growth, you find a way to immobilize something like mercury in the soil so it is not getting into the watershed and into our food chains,” Dr. Sieber said.

A Unique Learning Experience

This Teen Science Cafe offered students more than a lesson about mercury pollution and our ecosystem. The researchers who organized this event are a part of an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students from chemistry, biochemistry, biology, journalism, environmental education, and native studies. 

The combination of these disciplines is at the foundation of their researchPrincipal investigator and Assistant Professor in plant chemistry Dr. Luke Busta brought together a team representing  a broader range of perspectives. 

“There are a whole variety of ways to build knowledge around a particular topic, and I think prior to this project I thought of what the primary way of doing that as being conducting experiments in a laboratory or something like that,” Dr. Busta said. 

Collaborating with group members in different disciplines helped expand on the understanding around the topic of bioremediation.

“Most importantly, that the different types of knowledge that come from these different modes of generating knowledge are complementary to one another, and there’s like a synergy to them essentially, and that they have the potential to be more impactful than any one in isolation,” Dr. Busta said.

Land as a Living Entity

Among the different approaches to understanding science included reframing our relationship with the environment beyond traditional, dominant science. The teens were also taught the science of bioremediation through the lens of indigenous approaches to our relationship with land.

“When you hear about scientific research you just picture scientists in labs and everything, it was really nice to hear them talking about our relation to Earth,” teen leader Micah Schlotec said.

Blesi is the cultural liaison for the project and who advises the research team on native treaty rights and facilitates conversation between the group and tribal organizations. She explained to the teens how a lot of indigenous languages are verb-based. This means that life is viewed as a relationship, which includes the relationship to the land.

“When we talk about land, basically the word land encompasses all the relations that people have to the land, like every part of it,” Blesi said. “That can include the animals, the trees, the water, the sky, all of that together is encompassing land and that entire relationship.”

Blesi explained that Land is thought of “as something to be named and respected,” so it is capitalized. 

“I think it’s really important that we’re able to kind of educate the scientific community along with the greater community about indigenous history while relating it to this project,” Blesi said.

Photo Caption: Undergraduate American Indian Studies student Chanda Blesi presents the meaning of Land in Ojibwe. Reframing the relationship with the Land through a native lens shifts the approaches taken in mercury research.

By changing the conversation about mercury contamination and clean-up to include a Native understanding of Land, students were able to understand the problem on a deeper level and explore innovative solutions. 

“Even with marbles that were a little bit smaller that would slip through the cracks, it was like ‘wow, there are all these possibilities to consider,’” teen leader Elyana Hewitt from Hermantown High School said. 

Reflections on Learning 

Once the activity and discussion wrapped up, the students gathered together for the cafe portion of the event. Their initiative to learn outside of the classroom not only taught them a new approach to mercury bioremediation, but also a new way to understand what their relationship with Land could be. 

“I really liked how they described the relationship of land, like the uppercase, and it was just really cool to see,” Megan Gunderson, a junior from Hermantown High School, said. “Like, the land is important and it's really special, and we have to keep a steady relationship with it.”