Student plants seeds for success

Published 10:39 pm Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Suffolk teen has received a trio of distinctions for his work on local shorelines.

King’s Fork High School 10th-grader Jack Van Straten, 16, competed in the Tidewater Science and Engineering Fair held on Saturday at Old Dominion University. Students exhibited their various projects to judges with academia and industry backgrounds.

Jack’s project won the 2018 Community Innovation Award from the Society for Science and the Public, which came with $500, according to the press release. He also placed second in the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a prestigious award with a $75 scholarship.

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His trifecta was completed with the NASA Earth System Science award, which is presented to the project that offers the most insight into the earth’s interconnected systems, according to a press release.

“I didn’t expect to get anything, but then I heard them call my name,” Jack said. “I was just really excited that I got something.”

His award-winning work was for “Living Shoreline Effect on Environmental Diversity.” This competition submission originated from his work at Sleepy Hole Park in 2016 that helped him become an Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts of America Troop 25.

Jack coordinated about 20 volunteers to construct a living shoreline at the park’s kayak launch in the spring of 2016. They amassed 172 hours of work to clear the site of debris and invasive aquatic grasses, then plant more than 1,000 native plants.

During those six months, he learned leadership and the value of getting your hands dirty to learn more.

“You could do all this research and think you know what you’re doing, but you really just have to go out and do it,” he said.

For his latest project, Jack made a 2-by-2-foot square piece of shoreline out of PVC pipe at Lone Star Lakes Park. That enclosure was cleared of all invasive species of plants, including the local troublemaker phragmites.

“If you were to just get down on the grass looking at the shoreline with phragmites, you’d see it’s just very barren and without any diversity,” he said.

Jack planted three different native species of grass in his experimental square, then observed it in two-week intervals over three months.

He witnessed these grasses thriving and saw several animal species like grass shrimp, periwinkle snails and red-jointed fiddler crabs take residence in the flourishing habitat.

The phragmites-infested areas, meanwhile, remained stagnant with noticeably less diversity and life.

“It just has a better habitat for native species to grow, rather than the phragmites that’s choking the life and diversity out of the local marshes,” he said.

He plans to enter his project into the next level of competition held by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

“He did this research on his own because he’s got a passion for the environment,” said Jack’s biology teacher, Tonya Bangley. “He’s a real go-getter student.”