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TTU biogeochemist Natasja van Gestel helps 6th-grade Carbon Keepers with research project

Texas Tech University biogeochemist Natasja van Gestel and soil scientist David Weindorf helped a group of local 6th-graders with a research project (shown above) to address excess carbon in the atmosphere. The children's research went on to win two national awards.

Natasja van Gestel and David Weindorf Help 6th-Grade 'Carbon Keepers' With Climate Change Research

The Children Won 2 National Awards for 2019-2020: The Lexus Eco Challenge and The eCYBERMISSION Competition.

7.31.2020 | Toni Salama

TTU biogeochemist Natasja van GestelIn October 2019, Natasja van Gestel and David Weindorf received a request for help on a research project—nothing out of the ordinary in that. As a Texas Tech University biogeochemist and ecologist, van Gestel studies the effects of climate on soil microbial processes and plant physiology. She routinely works with scientists from around the world.

Weindorf is a globally recognized soil scientist known for his pioneering research in technology that aids in soil surveys. He's also Texas Tech's associate vice president of research and innovation and the B.L. Allen Endowed Chair of Pedology in plant and soil science.

What made this particular query unique was that it came from a group of local 6th-graders who wanted to tackle climate change in a creative way—by making agriculture part of the solution to reducing excess carbon in the atmosphere.

Today, the fruit of their collaboration with van Gestel and Weindorf has brought Carbon Keepers, from Southcrest Christian School, recognition on a national and even global scale.

TTU soil scientist David WeindorfIn March 2020, Carbon Keepers became grand prize winners in the 2019-2020 Lexus Eco Challenge in the Air & Climate category for Middle School. The Lexus Eco Challenge is a nationwide scholarship competition that charges students in grades 6-12 to identify an environmental issue that affects their community and develop an action plan with practical solutions and measurable results. The Lexus Eco Challenge is conducted by Scholastic, a publisher of children's books and educational materials.

Three months later, in June 2020, Carbon Keepers' proposal made it through rigorous judging to win first place in the 6th-grade category of the 18th Annual eCYBERMISSION Competition for 2019-2020—another national award, where they competed against 2,923 other teams. eCYBERMISSION is a web-based STEM program sponsored by the U.S. Army and administered by the National Science Teaching Association. Its mission is to encourage students to develop solutions to real-world problems in their local communities.

The Proposal

Felipe de Farias, a Carbon Keeper at Southcrest Christian SchoolThe Carbon Keepers—led by 6th-grader Felipe de Farias and shepherded by their teacher/advisor, Laura Wilbanks—were looking for ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and also help local farmers improve plant growth and soil health, van Gestel said.

When they contacted van Gestel and Weindorf for help with their proposal, they learned they were on the right track.

"Agricultural fields have lost lots of carbon," van Gestel explained, "and agricultural practices can help put the carbon back where it belongs: in the soil."

By rebuilding carbon through regenerative practices, she said, growers can help remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and transfer it into the soil as organic matter.

Milene de Farias, an analytical chemist who teaches at Southcrest, described how the students' idea started like a science fair project but expanded when the group wanted to take their work to the next level. It made sense for them to look for solutions locally.

"We live in this community, so that's where we need to be involved," said de Farias, who also is the mother of Carbon Keeper Felipe de Farias. "Farmers are not the bad guys they are often depicted to be. They're part of the answer."

The Process

hands holding soilTo reach their goal, the budding scientists first met with van Gestel and Weindorf to strategize an experimental design that would allow them to best process their data. In a later session, van Gestel coached them in lab techniques.

Then the Carbon Keepers donned lab coats—donated by van Gestel—for three days of research in the Weindorf lab.

"When they got to the lab, all we had to do was show them how to use the equipment," van Gestel said. "David (Weindorf) and I helped guide the students, who then independently did all of the work: they met with growers, collected soil samples and had a rigorous sampling design."

After collecting different types of soil from local farms, the Carbon Keepers conducted a series of carbon sequestration experiments. According to Scholastic, their data analysis showed a link between decreased carbon in the air and carbon sequestration in the soil.

They shared their findings with community organizations and government agencies, eventually producing an education campaign for land-use professionals and conducting hands-on education for farmers and ranchers.

Van Gestel conducts soil research from North America to Antarctica, so the Carbon Keepers' proposal fit right in with her own studies.

TTU biogeochemist Natasja van Gestel, right, conducting research in Antarctica

TTU biogeochemist Natasja van Gestel, left, and colleague Kelly McMillen conduct field research in Antarctica in 2019. They are depicted measuring initial soil carbon levels before they begin a warming experiment.

"I'm glad that some of the growers who work with me on my Grower Citizen Science project, which is funded by Cotton Incorporated and the James A. 'Buddy' Davidson Foundation, were willing to work with the kids," van Gestel said. "Growers are really interested in soil health, and the Carbon Keepers' research makes farmers and growers part of the solution."

Some of the action plans recommended in the Carbon Keepers' study included adding plant-beneficial microbes to the soil and leaving some plant residue in the fields after harvesting.

The Future

The Carbon Keepers may have conducted their research in West Texas, with West Texas growers, on West Texas farmland, but van Gestel says their work can have a global impact.

According to the Grower Citizen Science Facebook page, the Carbon Keepers have contacted United Nations embassies to translate their findings into other languages.

"Their research will help farmers worldwide," van Gestel said. "And this may be only the beginning."

With the 2019-2020 science competitions behind them, Milene de Farias said the Carbon Keepers already are looking for other problems to solve.

"For their next project, they're talking about studying drought and water retention," she said.

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