Testing waters, and opportunities

Ambitions: At Centennial High School, teens hone their business and scientific skills at a student-run water-testing company.

January 10, 2001|By Laura Dreibelbis | Laura Dreibelbis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Science and business unite every Thursday in Ed Rohde's classroom at Centennial High School as nearly 30 youths converge in a student-run company complete with finance, marketing and analytical units.

Student Advocates For Environmental Water (S.A.F.E. H2O) is a nonprofit organization Rohde started last year in partnership with W.R. Grace & Co. in Columbia. Students test local water for hardness, pH levels, copper concentration, chlorine concentration and chemical oxygen demand - a measure of bacteria and organic chemicals.

Students are not graded and receive no extra credit. They participate to explore career opportunities, give back to the community and gain experience running a business.

"The S.A.F.E. H20 project is a unique blend of real-world experience, service to the community and partnership with industry," said Rohde, a chemistry teacher, science department chairman and student adviser.

S.A.F.E. H20 has a mission statement, logo, Web site (www.safeh2o.org), monthly newsletter, brochures and sample forms. News releases, complete with quotes, are passed out to visitors. The donation requested for water testing is $10, or $15 if lead is included.

The classroom at the Ellicott City school resembled a corporate boardroom last week as business unit students discussed goals and strategies and brainstormed on how to obtain new customers and meet this year's goal of testing 400 samples - double that of last year.

Kavita Shukla, a junior and head of the business unit, had prepared a memo to all units, listing responsibilities, ideas and plans for each student. The No. 1 priority is attending school events and selling the service, Kavita said.

Adding pickup and delivery of samples is a new idea. "I think that would be really important," said Meera Kapor, a junior who prepared a video about the project.

"But how would we do this pickup and delivery?" responded Matt Lee, who is working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation on ideas for S.A.F.E. H20 to raise money for the foundation as a company outreach activity.

Nima Negahban and another student who has graduated designed the company Web site, which registered about 3,500 hits last year. A senior who plans to major in computer science, Nima keeps track of myriad information and said he has learned tools for success in a corporate environment. While the business unit meets, analytical unit members have moved to the lab to hone their skills for sample testing that began Monday. Alex Chin, head of the analytical unit, is in his second year with S.A.F.E. H20. The project helped him decide against majoring in chemistry. Instead, he is leaning toward computer science.

The group donned goggles and blue gloves and, working in pairs, performed a battery of tests. Reagents (chemical reactants) were added to the samples. Two spectrophotometers (one donated by W.R. Grace & Co. and the other by Shimadzu Scientific Instruments. Inc. in Columbia) were used to pass light through the sample, gauging the concentration of contaminants by measuring the absorbency of light.

Emily Cheng has always been interested in science and enjoys the hands-on lab work. She might go into engineering or chemistry. "The possibilities are still endless for me," Emily said.

Co-worker Deepika Mittal, 16, participates because it is unusual and different. It's something that can be applied to the real world, said Deepika, who probably will pursue a science career.

"I can't imagine where else or how else I would have gotten such an experience. Here I am 16 years old, basically running a company," Kavita said.

The company's future is up to the students, Rohde said. More research and development is one direction, with patent possibilities for a soap dispenser that reminds users how long to wash their hands.

"They're highly motivated, enthusiastic and dedicated," Rohde said.

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