Students’ project solutions address nitrogen pollution on school grounds


Solving environmental problems is something everyone can pitch in to do. Students at Elmont Memorial High School and Sewanhaka High School were moved to do just that when they submitted green infrastructure project proposals to address nitrogen pollution on their schools’ campuses.

Six students from the schools comprised two of five winning teams that submitted project proposals to the Long Island Regional Planning Council’s annual Water Quality STEM Challenge earlier this month.

The students have the option to receive a grant for up to $2,500 to implement or partially implement their project.

“Working with young people to enhance their understanding of water quality challenges like the impact of nitrogen on Long Island’s waters is always rewarding,” John Cameron, chairman of the planning council, said in a news release. “The enthusiasm of these students is inspiring, and hopefully this experience leads to a lifelong interest in environmental conservation and protection.”

Nitrogen pollution is a leading cause of deteriorating water quality in Long Island’s estuaries, threatening the health of the marine ecosystem as well as the region’s economic well-being, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Excess nitrogen causes toxic algal blooms that deplete oxygen, kill fish, and degrade wetlands and marine habitats. It also contaminates groundwater, the sole source of Long Island’s drinking water.

Fertilizers, aging residential septic systems, animal waste and stormwater runoff are among the sources of nitrogen pollution in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Isaiah Adelke, an eighth-grade student at Sewanhaka High School, submitted a proposal as a team of one that included planned bio-retention areas using fungi and plants, with planter boxes around a pond at a courtyard on school grounds. The plants would absorb the nitrogen that comes from rain or water runoff, effectively cleaning the pollutant from the water before it reaches stormwater drains.

Isaiah said he could not implement the project at Sewanhaka, however, because it would be difficult to install given the spatial constraints of the school’s courtyard.

“So, if one thing is missing, it’s likely the other things probably won’t work,” he said.

But, Isaiah added, he enjoyed working on his proposal. “I was really glad with how my project came out after many months of working on it,” he said. “I took pride in what I did, and I was glad at the result that I got.”

The Elmont High team was composed of freshmen Nara Clarke, Gloria Edo-Osagie, Grace Gablo and Tania Trent and eighth-grader Neah Clarke. They met every Friday after school from November to February to learn about nitrogen pollution, investigate its sources on campus, and test the samples they collected at the school’s lab. They found the highest levels of nitrogen on the softball field, and proposed that a series of vertical planter boxes be installed along the field’s retaining wall to absorb the pollutant.

When working on their proposal, they took into consideration the financial constraints of the grant they would receive if they won, so that the project could be implemented. It will cost $2,230 to install, and the students and their faculty adviser, Kathryn Farley, a science teacher at the high school, hope to do so before the end of the school year, pending approval from the planning council.

Working on the project inspired Nara to consider a future working in environmental conservation and protection. She said she learned a lot about how nitrogen affects the soil.

“It just made me want to learn more about it, and I would love to do this in the future,” she said.

Grace enjoyed taking part in the challenge, and said it made her more aware of the pollution issues Long Island faces.

“Usually the more pressing issue would be climate change or other major oil pollutions,” she said. “But just learning a little bit more about the place where I live and the place where I usually spend most of my time is very informational for me.”

A panel of water quality experts from across Long Island served as judges of the proposals, and awarded grants not only to Elmont and Sewanhaka, but also to West Hempstead High School, Island Trees Memorial Middle School, in Levittown, and Walt Whitman High School, in Huntington Station, for their teams’ projects.

In a news release, one of the judges, Sara Cernadas Martin, water quality program manager for the Peconic Estuary Partnership, described the competition as an “invaluable resource for empowering the next generation.”

Another judge, Derek Betts, district manager of the Nassau County Soil and Water Conservation District, emphasized the importance of fostering an appreciation among young people for the region’s ecosystems.

“The LIWQC provides a creative way for children to understand nitrogen pollution and identify projects that can help mitigate its negative effects at the local level,” Betts said in the news release.

To learn more about the Long Island Regional Planning Council, visit