By Dan Miller
News of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might have faded from the national headlines. But for a group of high school students in Mobile, Ala., the Gulf will continue to be the focal point of exploration and analysis over the next year—an investigation that would not have been possible without financial assistance provided by Toyota Motor Sales (TMS). Kevin Dolbeare, a biology and chemistry teacher at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, is one of 50 recipients of grants totaling $500,000 in the Toyota TAPESTRY Grants for Science Teachers Program. He and his students will attempt to isolate marine bacteria in the Gulf and determine how it is able to consume oil, thus helping to mitigate the negative effects of the spill.
“We’re not only going to look for bacteria but also, with the use of PCR (Polymerase chain reaction)—the same technology that identifies DNA samples at crime scenes—we hope to find the genetic component that allows the bacteria to convert oil into energy.”
Dolbeare and his team will collect water samples near the coast and, by chartering a boat, 35 miles out. The first samples were collected in July, with follow-up sessions planned in September, December and March. In the end, the group intends to publish its findings in a scientific journal.
“This isn’t just a learning experience,” says Dolbeare. “We hope to contribute to the scientific community’s understanding of how the Gulf can reset itself.”
“The kids are really excited about this opportunity,” he adds. “Some of them have come in during their summer vacation and there will be a lot of extra hours invested during the school year. We’re extremely grateful to Toyota for offering the TAPESTRY grant. In light of recent budget cuts at the school, we wouldn’t be able to do this without it.”
Sponsored by TMS and administered by the National Science Teachers Association, the Toyota TAPESTRY program serves as the nation’s largest science teacher grant program of its kind and awards funding for innovative science proposals submitted by educators in environmental science. Since its inception in 1990, educators from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Mariana Islands have received TAPESTRY grants totaling more than $9.7 million. This year’s winning projects, such as Dolbeare’s study of the Gulf, range from creating bio-fuel in an effort to help school communities go green to increasing food production farms in urban environments.
“It’s extremely rewarding to support exceptional teachers who bring quality science education to our children,” says Michael Rouse, TMS vice president of philanthropy. “The Toyota TAPESTRY program was built on the vision of recognizing such teachers and supporting their efforts to improve science learning. Over the past 21 years, we’ve had the opportunity to turn that dream into reality.”
Pictured left: Dr. Alice Ortmann (right) of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab shows Andrew Guo of ASMS how to measure the dissolved oxygen in an ocean water sample collected from 15 meters below the surface and 35 miles off the Gulf coast. Pictured right: Tiffany Ngo (left) and Guo filter water samples to increase the concentration of bacteria that will then be subjected to PCR DNA extractions.