Making science happen despite challenges!

Sometimes teachers face difficulties doing science labs in the classroom. It takes a special educator to persevere through challenges to help their students complete the labs and have the experience. Robin Wright, a teacher from North Point High School in Maryland, explains the obstacles that she had to overcome to complete the Making biodiesel from soybeans lesson with her students in Foundations of Technology & Biotechnology & Agriculture.

My classroom is set up as a computer lab and there is no running water in the portable building. This makes it challenging to do hands-on activities for my Foundations of Technology class; however, it works well for my computer science classes. I work at a school that has specific science, technology, and industry programs that students must apply for and be accepted to. I do not specifically teach in one of those programs as we have zoned students as well. I spoke with our biotech teacher at the beginning of the year about the resources I had received at the Ag Biotech Academy workshop and we planned to work together or switch rooms depending on the activity. We decided to combine some classes to make the biodiesel, and I would have my other classes test the biodiesel.

I consulted with GrowNextGen teacher leader Rachel Sanders several times before and during the lab to obtain clarification. We do not have separatory funnels, so Rachel explained that we could use Mason jars and then use pipettes to remove the glycerin from the jars. My colleague’s class of seniors helped guide my students through the lab. It took us three class periods over the course of a week to complete the lab. We mixed the oil with the KOH to make methanol on Monday. On Wednesday we could clearly see the layers of biodiesel and glycerin and extracted the glycerin out. We then washed the biodiesel. On Friday, we tested the biodiesel in the pop-pop boats.

Overall, the activity went very well. For next year, I would like to see if we can purchase separatory funnels to make the separation process faster and efficient. I’d like to adjust the data sheet for the testing of the oil to be more objective, requiring students to compare the oils. We also need a better area to test the boats. We will possibly work with our welding program to build something.

I would never have been able to do a lab like this one without attending the workshop. I was very confident the lab would be successful because I had the hands-on experience from the workshop. I told my building principal about the activity and he was impressed. He suggested we use our pool as a test site in the future, but I am concerned about the spilling of biodiesel in the pool!