A team of high-school freshmen has found a way to snuff out household termites—without exposing children and pets to noxious chemicals.
Call them the Termite Terminators. That’s the name the crew of 22 freshmen at the Engineering & Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) adopted during a months-long science project that’s culminating this weekend.
This Saturday, students will assume the toned-down name Paint Away Termites as they enter a statewide competition called the Student Innovation Expo at the Governor William A. O’Neill State Armory in Hartford. Five teams from ESUMS are competing, as well as teams from four other New Haven high schools and 35 schools from the rest of the state.
New Haven public schools have been entering teams in the contest for several years; click here to read about a winning entry from Metropolitan Business Academy.
Click on the play arrow to watch a video they’ll be presenting Saturday.
The Termite Terminators shared their findings in an interview Wednesday inside teacher Ginger Meetze’s biology lab.
The project dates back to October, when students got a challenge to design an environmentally friendly solution to a real-world problem. They identified a target: those pesky termites that ravage cabinets, wood furniture, and even sheetrock paper. A colony of termites can tear through wood on a continuous rampage, 24 hours per day, until it has eaten all of the wood in sight, the students found. Termites strike over 600,000 homes nationwide per year, causing over $5 million in damage, they concluded.
To get rid of termites, people often have to vacate their homes while exterminators come in and spray the area with noxious chemicals. That solution is “expensive, inconvenient, and harmful to the environment,” the students determined. They set about looking for a green alternative.
Reading on the Web, students identified three natural substances they could harvest in the war against termites: Chrysanthemums, oranges and mint.
Oranges contain a chemical compound called d-limonene that has the magical combo students were looking for: safe for humans to touch, and deadly to termites. It dissolves their exoskeletons within seconds, according to freshman Arianna McDaniels, who co-led the student team.
Students got to work slicing off orange peels. They soaked them in water and olive oil, nuked them in the microwave for three minutes, then let the mixture cool for 24 hours. They removed the peels and used the resultant liquid, which they call orange oil, as a natural pesticide. They performed a similar process with the mums and mint.
To find the vermin, students again turned to the Web. At www.carolina.com, they found various “family packages” of termites. A hundred “worker” termites, which don’t have wings, go for $41.95. The “soldier” termites, which have wings, are more expensive. Education Connection, a partner organization funded by state and federal grants, sent ESUMS money to pay for not just classroom materials like termites, but also training for teachers and students participating in these “21st Century Skills” classes.
The termites arrived in a clear plastic container with ventilation holes to prevent suffocation and wood to stave off hunger.
Arianna said she was apprehensive about the shipment.
“I was afraid of termites at first,” she said. “Now I think they’re kind of cool.”
She pulled on some purple gloves Wednesday to show what she and her team discovered.
She took a pipette, sucked up a few hundred grams of orange oil, then released the oil into an empty plastic experiment box.
She pulled out a tiny white worker termite from its temporary home, nestled among some wood chips. She placed it in the plastic box next to the oil. The little termite squirmed in the oil. Within seconds, it stopped.
“It’s dead,” Arianna announced.
Other students peered inside to verify.
To determine which natural pesticide is most effective, students ran trials placing five termites in a box with a splash of the three different substances. Orange oil prevailed.
Students concluded that spraying orange oil onto a house or a piece of wood furniture would stave off the little creatures for a few months. But what about a more long-term solution?
Students decided they would mix the pesticide with water-based paint. They painted popsicles and plopped them in with the termites. The termites still died. The Termite Terminators also subjected the popsicles to fire, heat and water to see if the paint would deteriorate. It didn’t.
The Terminators celebrated their discovery.
No one was rooting for the termites to survive, said Nylie Sauffian: “When they died, we were happy.”
Other products on the marketplace use orange extract. Others combine pesticides with paint. But most rely on toxic chemicals, the students said.
In addition to performing the experiment, students wrote up a research paper and an explanatory iBook, and used a program called Blender to make computerized 3-D models recreating the experiment. (Click on the video higher up in this story to see them.) They compiled their findings in a series of videos and a website, which they created using Final Cut Pro and WordPress.
The whole project took months of work. Their teachers, Meetze, Leon Tynes and Tamika Warner, acted as facilitators and let the students take the lead. Students said they learned lots of new practical skills, such as how to make a website.
Most of all, “we learned to cooperate,” said Dana Joseph. The 22 students hailed from five different biology classes. They worked in small groups on different facets of the project. Dana said students figured out ways to meet up virtually: They would text each other at home and coordinate a time to jump on a shared Google Doc together to work on a research paper.
Arianna said she learned how to manage a group of 20 peers—and keep up with a flood of daily emails about the project. (Click here to see a list of all of the students on the team.)
Tynes, the school technology teacher, said the termite-slaying was the winning idea from an expo the school held a month ago. Every high school student was involved in a team. A panel of outside judges picked five winners. Students whose teams lost the competition but wanted to go to this Saturday’s statewide expo joined the winning teams. The result was a broad coalition of enthusiastic scientists.
As of Wednesday, they were making final video cuts and preparing posters.
“They’re going to do extremely well,” Tynes said.
Students plan to show up at their school at 6 a.m. Saturday, hop on a bus to Hartford, and present their work to a panel of judges.
“Knock ‘em dead,” a reporter offered Wednesday as they headed back to class.
“Do you mean the termites,” quipped Shyam Patel, “or the competition?”