Crude awakening

Megan Phillips. Photo by Shane Lo.

Megan Phillips. Photo by Shane Lo.

In summary: 
  • Lecturer Megan Phillips has recently revamped the Faculty of Science’s Environmental Remediation subject, creating simulated coastal oil spills with real crude oil
  • The program combines cutting-edge remediation research with a fascinating challenge to prepare students for the realities of working as an environmental scientist

On 20 April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. For three months, over 3.5 million litres of oil gushed from the well decimating 25 000 kilometres of coastline and the animals who lived there. While the disaster undoubtedly spawned learnings for those directly involved, one enterprising UTS ecologist is using real-life simulations of the catastrophe to educate the next generation of environmental scientists.  

“It’s so thick and foul, there’s nothing like it,” asserts Lecturer in the Faculty of Science Megan Phillips.

The phytoremediation ecologist is referring to the crude oil her Environmental Remediation students use to simulate a coastal oil spill - a scenario they could well encounter in their careers as environmental scientists.

The task requires students to build a mini coastal ecosystem, replicate a catastrophic oil spill using real crude oil and then evaluate the best clean-up method. Phillips believes it’s a first for an Australian university.

A mini coastal ecosystem created in the lab. Photo by Shane Lo. A mini coastal ecosystem created in the lab. Photo by Shane Lo.

“Environmental Remediation explores the practice and philosophies behind responsibly remediating degraded landscapes across the world,” says Phillips. “Contaminated land, in particular, is an extensive and deeply complex global problem and it has such huge implications for human and ecosystem health.

“My logic is if we’re training students how to effectively manage oil spills in the real world, we need to get them working with the real material so they know exactly what to expect.”

It’s all part of Phillips’ goal to revamp the Environmental Remediation subject in a way that “earths it in as much real-world experience as I can realistically provide within one teaching period.

“I think one of the most important things we can consider at university is ‘what are the jobs of the future?’,” she says. “I wanted to design a modern subject that prepares our students for growing environmental challenges.”

While Phillips readily admits her love for the job gets her “going in the morning”, re-designing a program that aims to bring together the most cutting-edge remediation research into a coherent story was “a fascinating challenge”.

Students experiment with phytoremediation in the green house. Photo by Megan Phillips. Students experiment with phytoremediation in the green house. Photo by Megan Phillips.

“In this field, it feels like we’re making new and important scientific discoveries every week. We have innovative applied research teams working at global scales, as well as successful site-specific local remediation projects documented in the Sydney region too. I combine these with classic historical case studies, like the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor disaster and the Deepwater Horizon, so students get a good sense of perspective for this field.”

Enter Faculty of Science Technical Officer Rod Hungerford and his assortment of props - plastic boats, hammerhead sharks, ducks and more. Hungerford, a geologist with more than 25 years of technical support experience at UTS, is crucial to bringing the practical component of Environmental Remediation to life.

“Adding a few extra fun things for the students ensures they enjoy the prac, not just learn from it. Technical support working closely and collaboratively with the lecturer has always been a feature of environmental science teaching at UTS, but this simulation was especially fun and something different for me too – there were lots of things to think about and solve,” he says.

The students, working in teams of three to five, had fun too. One group managed to turn their coastal marine microcosm, complete with sand and stones, into Stonehenge and another even more creatively re-created the death scene from The Lion King.

“Well that’s the ‘student factor’, someone always does something very unexpected,” deadpans Hungerford.

However, Phillips believes it’s this creative way of learning that will best equip graduates with the skills employers demand - project management, site assessment and analytical laboratory skills.

Says Phillips, “Everyone remembered how to perform a site assessment and design a tailored remediation plan vividly, because they did it all themselves based on the principles taught in the subject. They know that phytoremediation is an effective land management technique because they planted their own plants in polluted soil, and observed their plants decontaminate the soils over time. I’m sure they’ll remember this knowledge and experience and take it with them to their future careers.”

Students agree. “I enrolled in this subject as an elective, not really knowing what to expect, and honestly I enjoyed every component,” says third-year Bachelor of Science student Trent Haydon.

Students enjoy the hands-on nature of creating their own mini ecosystem. Photo by Rebecca Gallegos. Students enjoy the hands-on nature of creating their own mini ecosystem. Photo by Rebecca Gallegos.

“One of the assignments that really stood out for me was the independent research project. I chose an environmentally degraded site - an apartment block rooftop covered in concrete - assessed the problems and developed a remediation plan. This included converting it into a green rooftop that was more energy efficient, attracted native wildlife and dealt with the issues of modern urbanisation.”

For Bachelor of Environmental Forensics student Ashley Douglas, the subject not only cultivated her theoretical skills but allowed her to “showcase my abilities in a practical environment, something I can take to future employers as a differentiator.

“The subject was really conducive to creating, developing and reinforcing your own solutions to problems,” she says. “The key difference for me was the subject eschewed rote-style learning and encouraged a deeper understanding of the subject matter.”

Phillips says she was blown away by the students’ enthusiasm for their projects.

“There was extraordinary passion. Our students are hardworking people who want to make a positive difference to our environment.”

And with science increasingly contributing to Australia’s prosperity, Phillips believes, “there’s never been a better time to become an environmental scientist.”