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Organization Honors Elementary School Teacher, Students for Environmental Work

International Center for Arid and Semiarid Land Studies presented Laura Wilbanks with the GREEN Award.

Written by Megan Shudde

Laura Wilbanks

Laura Wilbanks

Texas Tech’s International Center for Arid and Semiarid Land Studies (ICASALS) recently presented its annual GREEN award to an instructor from Whiteface.

The $1,000 grant was awarded to Laura Wilbanks, science instructor at Whiteface Elementary School, and her project Arsenic: It’s What’s for Dinner. The students in Science Rocks U, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) enrichment program, chose the impact of arsenic and the health of future generations as the environmental challenge they wanted to address.

The Environmental Protection Agency limits the amount of arsenic in drinking water, but in Cochran County, water has exceeded this limit for a decade. Rural residents who depend on well water do not test for arsenic, therefore the level is unknown. Latest studies have shown alarmingly high levels of arsenic in certain foods like vegetables and rice.

Wilbanks and her students tried 18 different approaches and actively have worked toward a solution since November 2011. Students established partnerships, gathered samples, evaluated arsenic levels and conducted an awareness campaign to help residents of Cochran County reduce their exposure. The elementary-age students will partner with Texas Tech and West Texas A&M University ecologists to conduct long-term research and experiments to discover a native plant that can hyper-accumulate arsenic. The long-term research and action plan attempts to find a solution to high arsenic levels for the entire West Texas region.

Wilbanks said the impact of this project is not only helping the environment but also helping her students learn more about STEM subjects.

“The work being conducted by Whiteface Science Rocks U students has been interesting to them and has given us multiple opportunities to interact with scientists across a broad range of fields,” Wilbanks said. “It is the goal of the Science Rocks U program to inspire children to enter the STEM fields upon high school graduation.”

The GREEN award program requires K-12 educators to submit a description of the environmental challenge the group is wishing to address and an outline describing how the solution to the challenge will be carried out. The winner is selected on the criteria that the project results are measurable, sustainable, has an impact outside of the classroom and the effective project execution and tracking of development during a semester.

For more information on the center or the GREEN award visit www.icasals.ttu.edu.

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