The MDI Biological Laboratory has announced that it is expanding its innovative SEPA (Science Education Partnership Award) program, which aims to improve secondary school education in data literacy while addressing the public health threat posed by arsenic in well water.
The National Institute for General Medical Sciences, an institute of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded $162,700 over three years to the MDI Biological Laboratory for support of the supplemental program, entitled “Arsenic in All Seasons.” The program will be led by Jane E. Disney, Ph.D., senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory.
Under the supplemental program, Sarah R. Hall, Ph.D., a member of the earth sciences faculty at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and two to four undergraduate interns per year will conduct a monitoring program to assess how levels of arsenic in well water vary by season. They will also engage students at Mount Desert Island High School in Bar Harbor using data collected from students’ homes.
The new award is a supplement to a five-year, $1.2 million SEPA grant awarded to the MDI Biological Laboratory in 2018 for a program entitled “Data to Action: A Secondary School-Based Citizen Science Project to Address Arsenic Contamination of Well Water,” in which students learn how to analyze well water data collected from their homes and communicate their results to inform action.
Maine and New Hampshire have among the highest per capita reliance on private wells for drinking water in the nation, but few residents have their wells tested and some standard tests in Maine do not include arsenic, which has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the environmental contaminant with the biggest impact on human health.
According to the EPA, long-term exposure to arsenic, even at low levels, can lead to severe health problems, including cancer; diabetes; heart disease; and reproductive, developmental and cognitive problems, including lower IQs in children. Arsenic is a particular problem along the coastal “arsenic belt” in New England, where levels in up to 60 percent of wells exceed EPA limits.
An enhanced understanding of well water dynamics and the seasonal factors that influence arsenic levels in drinking water could lead to recommendations for closer monitoring for the more than 1.26 million residents of Maine and New Hampshire who rely on private wells for their drinking water.
In addition to improving public health, the supplemental program also aims to stimulate interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields among secondary school students through the “near peer” engagement of undergraduates. The Bar Harbor program will serve as a model for other Maine and New Hampshire institutions involved in the SEPA program, as well as for citizen science programs nationwide.
A goal of the supplemental program is to create a model of STEM education that partners secondary school students acting as citizen scientists with undergraduates who are pursuing careers in science. Secondary school students are more likely to expand their scientific skills and pursue higher educations in science when they are inspired by near-peer models.”
Jane E. Disney, Ph.D., senior staff scientist and director of education at the MDI Biological Laboratory
The SEPA program is led by the MDI Biological Laboratory in collaboration with Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., which analyzes the water samples collected by students. The results are provided to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services to help monitor arsenic exposure and implement mitigation strategies.
The SEPA program is an outgrowth of an EPA-funded environmental education program called “All About Arsenic,” on which the MDI Biological Laboratory also collaborated with Dartmouth. While that program succeeded in educating the community about the arsenic threat, it also identified a need for improving data literacy that the SEPA program is now addressing.
The supplemental “Arsenic in All Seasons” program is supported by Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grant number R25GM129796 from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.