News May 21, 2024

Jacobs Helps Young Innovator Shine at Science and Engineering Fairs

Jacobs partnered with The Villages Charter School to support student science and engineering fair projects, took top honor

Providing clean, quality drinking water for 140,000 residents? Check. Treating wastewater to remove pollutants? Check. Picking up trash in America’s fastest-growing 55-plus active adult community? Check. Going to the state science fair? Check!

Members of our Operations Management and Facilities Services team from The Villages, Florida, established a relationship with The Villages Charter School (VCS) and welcomed opportunities to partner and support student science fair projects and other relevant activities. The Villages project team hosted ninth-grade students for a tour of the North Sumter Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant (NSU WWTP) shortly thereafter. Students learned how wastewater services are vital to the economy, environment and public health.

“The plant tour was key to initiating our public education and outreach strategy with the school,” says The Villages Operations Director Josh Rushing. “It was also a great way for students to better understand the treatment process and determine if there was any overlap with their upcoming science fair projects.” 

One student, Sarah Colley, pursued a project about phytoremediation, an emerging green approach to detect and remove pollutants from wastewater. The hypothesis? Can duckweed successfully extract phosphates and nitrates from water and move them to soils?

To run the project, Sarah would use duckweed as a vehicle to transmit phosphates and nitrates. She created samples of water with high levels of phosphates and nitrates and added duckweed. The duckweed would remove the pollutants at high rates and the treated plant effluent could be composted since duckweed is high in nutrients that it absorbs from the water. 

However, Sarah’s at-home test kits weren’t producing reliable results so she went to the NSU WWTP to pull samples. “We pulled samples and utilized our spectrophotometer to provide her with higher-quality data. Then I taught her how to perform the filtering, digesting and sampling,” says Josh. 

Sarah visited the plant monthly and became a junior operator of sorts. “Once she understood how to treat the samples, I motivated her to take the lead on the process, offering her a more enriching experience," adds Josh. 

At the end of her experiment, Sarah concluded she could more successfully transfer the phosphates via the duckweed than the nitrogen. 

The results of Sarah’s hard work and the mentorship of the Jacobs team? Awards galore. Sarah won first place at the Big Springs Regional Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Fair and two specialty awards — one from the Association for Women Geosciences Foundation and one with the Yale Science and Engineering Association. Sarah’s first-place win also secured her a spot at the 69th State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida where she earned the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. She continues to submit her research to additional fairs and competitions, including the eCybermission Virtual STEM Fair where she earned first place for the state of Florida and scored as a top three region finalist in the Southeast and the Florida Future Farmers of America 2024 Agriscience Fair. 

“My project wouldn’t have gotten to State if I hadn’t worked with Jacobs,” says Sarah. “My project wasn’t going to work if I just kept doing it at my house, so I appreciate all of the help I’ve gotten throughout the process.”

Jacobs will continue to find additional opportunities to collaborate with VCS and mentor the next generation of innovators. And this summer, Sarah will return to the plant for her next science fair project — the impact of flushable wipes and microplastics on the WWTP. The idea was inspired by an issue she saw challenging operators during her initial tour of the plant. 

Jacobs provides complete operations and maintenance of public and private utility systems for The Villages, in addition to solid waste collection.

Did you know?

  • 1 st

    place at the Big Springs Regional STEM Fair

  • 2

    specialty awards — one from the Association for Women Geosciences Foundation and one with the Yale Science and Engineering Association

  • 69 th

    State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida state finalist

  • 2024

    Stockholm Junior Water Prize

  • 1 st

    place for the state of Florida at the eCybermission Virtual STEM Competition

  • 2024

    Florida Future Farmers of America Agriscience Fair acceptance

About STEAM at Jacobs

At Jacobs, STEAM and sustainability are at the heart of our business and we are united in developing and delivering a global STEAM education and engagement program that demonstrates our commitment to equality, inclusion and diversity.

We use “STEAM” rather than “STEM” because it highlights a broader, more inclusive range of interests and topics in addition to science, technology, engineering and math, and provides a greater opportunity for our employees to see themselves reflected in STEAM efforts.

Read more about what STEAM means to us