Summer camp sign-ups are coming to a close — for grade school students. But adult learners still have opportunities to engage in Lifelong Learning Workshops at the UF Whitney Laboratory in the town of Marineland.
Module 1 investigated "Nitrogen and Phosphorus: Why Nutrients Matter in the Environment," presented by Todd Osborne, associate professor of biogeochemistry.
Primarily a teaching and research facility, the Whitney Lab also seeks to inform the public and answer questions to encourage lifelong learning and enrich the daily lives of Floridians.
Curious adults arrived at the Marine Science Center a few minutes before the March 18, 9 a.m. class to sip coffee, have a donut and enjoy the panoramic view of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Karen Young moved from New Jersey 37 years ago and lives in Palm Coast. Young taught English at Cathedral Parish in St. Augustine, but always had a keen interest in science.
Now retired, she pursues educational opportunities and volunteers with the Marineland Right Whale Project to support conservation efforts and stewardship for endangered North Atlantic Right Whales.
“I love science,” Young said. She believes awareness is key to solving environmental issues. “People care about things they love and don’t think about things they’re ignorant of,” she said.
Osborne led the group upstairs for an informal lecture about the elements phosphorus and nitrogen and the impact they have on Florida’s environment, especially in estuaries and wetlands.
“Nitrogen makes up about 78% of our atmosphere,” Osborne said. “Outside of carbon, it’s the most important element on the planet. But too much of a good thing can be bad,” he said.
Algal blooms in Florida’s ponds, lakes, rivers and bays are often caused by nitrogen and phosphorus imbalances, resulting in fish kills.
The Indian River Lagoon is an example of a stressed ecosystem impacted by algal blooms which cause hypoxia — extremely low oxygen levels — suffocating fish and other marine life.
“The question is,” Osborne said, “where does this come from, and what can we do to help?”
With that, Osborne moved the class to a lab for hands-on experiments testing five soil samples collected nearby.
The first step was to measure exactly 10 grams of soil into a foil “boat,” transfer the soil to a test tube, then add 15 mL of distilled deionized water and close the lid.
The samples were shaken for 15 minutes to mix the soil and water, then placed in a centrifuge to separate the solids from liquid.
Next, students used a pipette to carefully draw 2.0 mL of only liquid, no solids, for transfer to a separate vial. After adding 0.2 mL of the test solution and closing the vial, they inverted it a few times and noticed the vessel heating up.
“It’s an exothermic (heat generating) reaction,” Osborne said, “We can read the results of the colorimetric analysis in 15 minutes.”
Sample 1 was taken from Osborne’s St. Augustine Shores yard and, even though he has not fertilized since he bought the house 10 years ago, the sample showed three times the limit of phosphorus allowable in wastewater treatment plant effluent. The nitrate level was also very high, indicating additional fertilizer was unnecessary.
In regards to the negative impact of nitrogen and phosphorus on Florida’s environment, Osborne said, “There are ways we can all contribute to solutions. Our single family home can have an impact.”
Before fertilizing, consider having a soil test through the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. For more information, go to soilslab.ifas.ufl.edu/ESTL%20Tests.asp. Reduce household use of cleaners containing nitrogen and phosphorus. Encourage the preservation of wetlands to allow nature to filter runoff naturally.
The next Adult Lifelong Learning Workshop, “Soil Microbial Chemistry,” is scheduled for April 8.
Professor Sandra Loesgen will help students extract compounds from soil and find out if there is a new antibiotic waiting to be discovered in a local soil sample.
For more information, go to www.whitney.ufl.edu/education/adult-lifelong-learning-workshops/ or email [email protected]. Workshops cost $50 per person, space is limited and participants must be at least 18 years old.