A Cup of Grow

City students work together to address a state problem

When students from Williamsport Area School District were hard at work in the science lab, they didn’t mind getting their hands dirty when addressing serious state environmental issues.

Seniors Elaina Stone, Desiree Aversa; junior, Rosemary Flock, and sophomores, Kathryn Penman, Oam Patel and Michael Collyer took first place in the regional Governor’s STEM competition held by BLaST IU 17 at Pennsylvania College of Technology. Their winning experiment and study focused on a liquid fertilizer called A Cup of Grow.” After the BLaST IU 17’s regionals Williamsport also competed in the state competition.

Addressing a problem

The students used the Engineering Design Process to guide their work as documented throughout their video journal, Aversa said. First, the group defined a problem to solve and surveyed community members, family, classmates among others to determine the top three concerns within the community.

“We asked them ‘What’s the biggest problem in Pennsylvania?’ “ Aversa said.

The top three responses included health, pollution and safety.

From there, the team collected information and researched the problems involving the community’s three concerns, Aversa said.

The students then brainstormed and analyzed different ideas in order to narrow their focus to two community problems the students wished to address through their STEM team. The group decided its focus would be on organic waste in landfills and agricultural issues, Flock said.

Organic waste

Organic landfill waste is a problem for three reasons, Flock explained.

It produces methane, “which is more dangerous than CO2,” she said. “It creates runoff into streams, ponds and other water sources, and results in ‘a lot of organic loss that could be put to better use’ “ than rotting in a landfill.

In the state’s agricultural sector, soil erosion and runoff cause environmental issues, and chemical fertilizers in large quantities are poisonous to the environment. Synthetic pesticides also cause problems by killing organisms that “are not intended to kill,” Flock added.

With specific pollution problems identified, the next step was to develop solutions.

Community collaboration

During the next step in this project, the Williamsport Area High School STEM team sought professional help from horticulture professor Michael A. Dincher, of Pennsylvania College of Technology.

“A Cup of Grow” is a natural soil amendment the winners created “to enhance the soil’s physical properties,” Penman said. The overall plan was designed to take organic waste and turn it into “something more valuable to the average person,” Flock added.

A Cup of Grow required a mixture of coffee grounds for nitrogen, tea leaves for potassium and brewing grains for phosphorus. The students also added sawdust from the school’s woodshop, triple phosphate and Micromax, Penman said.

The students partnered with local businesses, a requirement for the competition, to obtain the organic waste they needed for the recipe, Patel said. Alabaster Coffee Roaster and Tea Company provided the coffee grounds and tea leaves while New Trail Brewing Company provided the brewing grains.


Continuing to learn about their product, the students sought to make improvements, Collyer said. One was to convert the soil amendment to compost by letting it degrade in a compost bin that was rotated daily. This allowed for the nitrogen to break down and increase and the microbes cultured and grew. Microbes are good for controlling disease and increasing root strength, Collyer added.

Another improvement was the creation of “compost tea,” the liquid fertilizer, Collyer said. In the testing process, the students cultivated lettuce and radish plants with varying amounts of fertilizer to analyze which percentages resulted in the best growth.

“This project is all theirs,” said Andy Paulhamus, the STEM team’s teacher and facilitator. “These kids have a lot of initiative to go above and beyond. They’re hardworking, creative and dedicated.”

The team worked on their project from October to May, Paulhamus added.

STEM seniors

The seniors that were on the team are now preparing to head to college in the fall.

Aversa plans to study cell biology and biochemistry at Bucknell University and wants to pursue a career as an epidemiologist.

Stone plans attend Penn State to study architectural engineering.

Collyer would like to study forensic chemistry or biotechnology in the medical field in a few years.