November 21, 2008

Energy independence is one of the top issues the next generation will face. With help from the University of Kentucky Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment, students at Garrard County High School are attacking this issue head-on by studying switchgrass' potential to produce ethanol.

This project is just one of 16 community based science programs the center, part of the College of Agriculture, is conducting in middle and high schools across the state. These programs are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and strive to introduce students to new technologies and science-based career opportunities.

"We (his generation) are going to open some doors. We're going lay some ground work, but it's their generation that's going to carry it to the goal line to help wean us away from these fossil fuels," said Tom Keene, UK hay marketing specialist. "If we could get eight or 10 students that are really excited about this project and alternative energy, they will have their whole careers to finish the project."

By using global positioning systems and geographic information systems technologies, students in each of these three-year projects have an opportunity to address an issue affecting their communities. Since each project is unique to the school's community, no two projects are alike.

"They decide what the question is, and we try to provide the experts to help them solve the question," said Brian Radcliffe, program instructor with the Tracy Farmer Center for the Environment.

Students in Garrard County chose to work with biofuels because of the community's deep roots in agriculture and the fact that many local farmers are looking to diversify their crops, since they no longer raise tobacco. Switchgrass appealed to them, because it is a native grass with many uses. In addition to biofuels, the students will also use a portion of their crop to graze livestock.

"Switchgrass is just one piece of the alternative energy puzzle," Keene said. "We may get them interested in switchgrass, but they may say, ‘I want to look at wind or solar or hydroelectric or nuclear.' Who knows?"

Recently, specialists from the UK College of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service helped the students collect soil samples and use GPS units to map out the area where they will be growing switchgrass. Data the students collected will be used to create a map of the area and calculate the field's total acreage. Information from the soil samples will also be incorporated into the map and help the students know how much fertilizer the fields need.

The group will plant their first crop next spring and grow approximately an acre and a half of switchgrass during each year of the project. Throughout the project, students will collect and learn to analyze yield data and compare the yield potential of different varieties of switchgrass grown in different soils.

Ken Parsons, agriculture teacher at Garrard County High School, said his students are excited about participating in the program, and their excitement will probably continue to grow as they get the crop planted, watch it grow and harvest it.