French fries, the Olympics and "SpongeBob SquarePants" all had a part Friday in teaching a group of seventh-graders about drilling for natural gas.
"Our goal isn't to form an opinion," Janine Surmick, outreach coordinator for Pittsburgh-based RiverQuest, explained to students at South Allegheny Middle School. "It's to give you some educational background on the science and technology of what's going on."
RiverQuest, formerly Pittsburgh Voyager Inc., provides an Exploring Marcellus Shale program for schools in the region. South Allegheny took the opportunity to augment its regular classroom instruction.
"The value of bringing in hands-on programs such as Exploring Marcellus Shale provides our students with the most up-to-date information presented by experts in that field," said Lisa Duval, middle school principal. "The hands-on component makes the lesson stick and gives our students a more real-world approach to learning."
Ms. Surmick, joined by another coordinator, Danielle Stump, helped students in Dianne Suckfiel's seventh-grade science class relate their personal experiences to a complex topic.
French fries, for example, fit in as part of a cause-and-effect discussion of energy. The students traced the energy in their bodies to what they had for lunch, which included French fries. Instructors noted that potatoes are able to grow because of energy supplied by the sun.
"Pennsylvania uses a lot of different types of energy," Ms. Surmick said, including solar, coal, wind, gasoline, nuclear and hydroelectric. Natural gas is making its way toward the top of the list.
To explain the origins of the gas, she told how microscopic organisms called plankton, which were here when oceans covered the region millions of years ago, became trapped in sediment and emitted methane when they decomposed.
"Where do plankton live?" she asked. "I would encourage you to not listen to 'SpongeBob' and think about where the sun is."
The popular cartoon character and his sea-dwelling pals ostensibly live at the bottom of the sea, but plankton generally live near the top and then sink to become encased, leaving infinitesimally minute evidence of their existence.
"So if you shave off a piece of shale and you look at it under an electron microscope," Ms. Surmick said as she passed around a sample of the rock, "you're going to see empty spaces inside."
In discussing drilling for gas, she spoke about innovations that enable drills to be driven deep below the surface vertically and then extended horizontally to allow for maximum access to the shale.
To help students understand the vast amounts of water necessary for the process known as fracking -- fracturing the rock to release the methane -- she asked if they watched the swimming events during the summer Olympics in London a few months ago.
"Five million gallons of water is the equivalent to about 7.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools, just to give you a visual," Ms. Surmick said. "That's a little bit easier to grasp."
To give students an idea of the jobs that could await them in shale drilling, the RiverQuest program provides a list of occupations that are directly and indirectly related to the natural gas industry.
Ms. Surmick also offered this for consideration:
"One of the challenges that are being looked at right now is the impact on human health," she said. "There are no long-term studies right now being done. This has not been going on that long here to be doing those studies. So they're working on making those studies possible."
Harry Funk, freelance writer: