Science fair project turns into real-world water quality enhancement effort

Liam Tormey shows off a first-place award he won during the science and engineering fair hosted by WCU in early February. His project focusing on Tuckaseigee River water quality led to an effort to eliminate a source of sediment entering the river.

Lots of good ideas were coming from elementary, junior high and high school students at the 2018 Region 8 Western Regional Science and Engineering Fair hosted Feb. 7-8 by Western Carolina University.

Of the many stand-out projects at the annual science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competition, one in particular not only caught the eye of judges, but university officials as well.

Liam Tormey, a fifth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School, conducted a study of Tuckaseigee River water quality at test sites above and below the Cullowhee Dam. His presentation indicated that during recent rainstorms sediment coming from university property at a source point below the dam increased to levels unacceptable for trout habitat. Tormey is the son of Cheryl Waters-Tormey, head of WCU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources, and Blair Tormey, a coastal research scientist with WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

“You could see dirty water entering the river, right there,” Tormey said during a visit to the site, pointing to an area adjacent to a boat ramp and immediately downstream from the dam. “Some of it appeared muddier and that runoff was coming from a gully on the hillside and into a culvert.”

Faster flowing water quickly dispersed the murky water, but it was a problem in his eyes. “Not just for trout, but animals like the bald eagles we’ve seen by the river, and blue herons and an osprey,” he said. “And not just birds, but bears and raccoons and a lot of other wildlife. The river is important to them and us.”

Lauren Bishop, WCU’s chief sustainability officer, said the university was immediately interested in Tormey’s findings. “This campus does everything we can to support clean and healthy waterways in the region,” she said, noting that WCU was in compliance with both EPA regulations and the state’s riparian buffer guidelines. “There are situations where you want to be at the maximum level of stewardship. Liam showed us a way to get there.

“So we added buffers and reinforced existing storm water run-off prevention for when torrential or extended rainfall occurs,” Bishop said. “This was an ‘over and above’ for our grounds crew, who appreciate the outdoors and activities on the Tuck, and responded immediately to help put improvements in place. I am always impressed with the quality and care of their efforts. They are one of the main reasons we have such a beautiful campus.”

Tormey’s project won him a list of honors at the science and engineering fair, including first place in the third- through fifth-grade category, the award for best biodiversity project, a special award in the geosciences category and first-place recognition from the N.C. American Water Works Association and N.C Water Environment Association, which includes a $50 prize. He now advances to the state Science and Engineering Fair set for March 23-24 at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

“In the science fair, kids have to have a curiosity and solve a problem to be successful,” said event organizer Kelley Holzknecht Dinkelmeyer, an instructor in chemistry and physics at WCU. “Liam did both with his project. A neat aspect of this story is how his project led to a push that helped improve the local environment, an actual outcome of an action resulting from his data.”

Even before becoming a fifth-grader, Tormey had experience in aquatic ecology as a part of Watershed Moments, an afterschool activity led by the WCU Department of Biology and the Highlands Biological Station that takes samples of aquatic life and records observations as a STEM learning opportunity. It began in March 2016 and is funded by a three-year $159,123 grant from the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund.

“Liam is dedicated to nature and supporting conservation,” said Lora Cox, a science teacher at Cullowhee Valley School. “He is particularly engaged with Watershed Moments and motivated by it, and the science fair project further reflects that.”

The regional fair took place at WCU’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center with 137 projects created by students from schools in 14 mountain counties. It is the largest STEM event held in the region for pre-college students. This year’s theme was “Superhero Science.”

The guest speaker for the event was Rhett Allain, physics instructor at Southeastern Louisiana University and a technical consultant for the CBS drama “MacGyver” and the Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters,” as well as a science blogger for Wired magazine.

For more information on the fair,  go to this webpage or contact WCU’s Office of Continuing and Professional Education at 828-227-7397. For more information on campus conservation, contact the Office of Sustainability and Energy Management at 828-227-7442.