Part of the carbon storage solution

Eel-grass project gives engineering students hands-on learning

In late January, five students from UBC’s Vancouver campus worked through the night to gather 600 eel grass plants and more than 200 pounds of mud from the Comox Valley estuary on Vancouver Island.

Now they’re growing the eel grass in four tanks located in the courtyard of the Chemical and Biological Engineering building on East Mall as part of a community service learning (CSL) partnership that Prof. Royann Petrell established with the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society.

“The aim is to measure the carbon capture and storage of these plants and sediment under different environmental conditions,” explains Petrell, who formally introduced CSL components into her second- and fourth-year chemical and biological engineering courses last year.

The UBC data will help the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society evaluate carbon storage by estuarine vegetation systems and to assess the effects of community based restoration efforts on eel grass meadows and how well these plants remove the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Petrell says field work makes all the difference for students to understand the real-life application of theory—in this case how engineering know-how will help to protect aquatic and other biological systems. “The students had met with the community groups and were very inspired by their need, their respect and their desire to protect the estuary and take on the challenge of mitigating climate change.”

The student response to problem-based learning within a community context has been phenomenal, says Petrell, who has been invited to speak on CSL and environmental issues at the UN World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities in Rio de Janeiro in early June. “In my 20 years of teaching, I’ve never seen anything like it. Students are offering to stay on after they’ve finished the course so they can pass on their knowledge and mentor the next group.”

Heather Kempthorne was one of the students who donned hip waders and head lamps, working to the sound of waves under a dark sky full of stars. “After seeing how the eel grass grows in the ocean, we’re all pretty invested in this project and want to see it succeed.”

Despite the increases to an already heavy seven-course work load, Kempthorne says she values the hands-on learning.

“We’re getting to apply fundamental engineering principles that mirror the complexities of an ecosystem,” says Kempthorne who will be looking at jobs in the sustainable energy sector when she graduates with a degree in chemical and biological engineering degree this May.

In the meantime, she is tackling the “steep learning curve” of getting the right heater and pump, and understanding flow rate and storage volume for water recirculation. The task is to create an artificial estuary in each of the tanks, which measure about six feet long and two feet wide. The students must factor in the variables of temperature, pH, salinity, tidal action and nutrient concentration.

Paul Horgen, chair of the Comox Valley Project Watershed Society, says the UBC students’ contributions are very welcome. He explains that past forestry and mining along with industrial and residential activities have eroded eel grass habitat which are vital for salmon, herring, water fowl, shell fish and other animals.

“This project represents a long-term effort and has a win-win outcome for both carbon sequestration and habitat improvement,” says Horgen a former University of Toronto biology professor. “Recent reports show that eel grass can be as much as 90 times as effective as identical areas of coniferous forest in removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 3 | Feb. 29, 2012

Heather Kempthorne (pictured with Prof. Royann Petrell) works on the artificial estuary tank.

Heather Kempthorne (pictured with Prof. Royann Petrell) works on the artificial estuary tank. Martin Dee Photograph

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“We’re getting to apply fundamental engineering principles that mirror the complexities of an ecosystem.”

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