Planned student lab at Silver River Museum gets big boost

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Posted February 12, 2021 | By Brendan Farrell, Ocala Gazette | Photography by Euan Hunter, submitted

Vanguard High School chemistry teacher Euan Hunter sees the Silver River as a gift, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It’s why he’s worked to transform a portable building at the Silver River Museum into a lab for students to learn more about the river and its health.

The project recently got a big boost from the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) after they donated a trove of surplus lab equipment to the effort.

While obsolete to the district, the equipment still has lots of life left and is perfect for student use.

Once the lab is up and running at the museum, middle and high school students will use the facility. Hunter says the new equipment will allow students to analyze samples quicker and more accurately than they could before. They would be able to collect samples, test them and obtain results all while still on-site, instead of having to take samples back to school.

“With this equipment, Marion County students can learn how to operate high-quality instruments, generate data to discover more about the Silver River and grow into citizens committed to water protection and conservation,” said Ann Shortelle, SJRWMD executive director, in a prepared statement.

Hunter, who frequently takes students to the Silver River on field trips to collect samples, said he was thrilled when he found out that the district was sending the surplus equipment.

“I was absolutely gobsmacked. It was an amazing thing,” Hunter said. “It was like, ‘Geez, that’s incredible,’ especially when you consider, you know, what a typical high school science teacher’s budget is.”

The surplus equipment includes tools like a block digester, vacuum pump, automated samplers and more.

He hopes to have the lab up and running by August, but in the meantime, the number of classes doing sampling at the river is growing.

Students collect water samples for further analysis back at Vanguard High School. Once the lab is up and running, students will be able to test their water samples on site. [Euan Hunter/Submitted]

The project is still raising money to pay for upgrades to the building and to purchase chemicals for analysis.

With help from the Public Education Foundation of Marion County, more than $35,000 in other equipment has been purchased for the project.

The Silver River is 5.5 miles long. It starts at the headwaters of Silver Springs and flows into the Ocklawaha River. Concerns about the state’s springs, including Silver Springs, have prompted state regulations to try and reduce the amount of nitrogen compounds that enter springs. Increased pollutants promote algae growth, which in turn can affect water quality. The compounds can come from wastewater, water from septic tanks, stormwater runoff and fertilizer runoff.

“I felt that the idea of being able to take students out to Silver Springs, which is on our doorstep, it’s a beautiful place, you know, I don’t think we should ever underappreciate, you know, how lucky we are to have that on our doorstep,” Hunter said. “And when the students are doing real-world science without them knowing the answer, it really pushed their creativity and the thinking skills of students. And I felt that it shouldn’t really just be my class. All classes should be able to do it.” 

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