Polaris students present water quality research findings to local leaders

To the naked eye, the dozens of small laboratory bottles full of lake and river water looked unremarkable. 

But when Polaris Expeditionary Learning School students put these carefully gathered Northern Colorado water samples under the microscope, they found something worth noting: Microplastics. Lots of them. 

“I had no idea about this before we did the project,” Polaris junior Nora said. “Neither did my parents or my peers. Our biggest takeaway is that we want more people to be aware of it.”

  • Two Polaris student use microscopes to examine samples.
  • A Polaris student researches on her computer.
  • A Polaris student conducts microplastics research.
  • Two Polaris students work together on tests for microplastics in local water samples.
  • Polaris students look at more water samples during research.

As part of their science curriculum, these students gathered samples from lakes and rivers across the region and then tested them for microplastics, tiny shards of degraded plastic that can come from many sources including cosmetics, clothing, fishing equipment and more. When they conducted testing, the students found that 90.6 percent of samples contained at least one microplastic. 

Teacher Sarah Bayer said the project, and the research that preceded it, gave students an opportunity to take a topic that has been in the news and study how it affects their community.

“It’s local, and it’s tangible,” she said. “You don’t need advanced science and equipment to do this.”

The students followed careful protocols to ensure the validity of their findings. They didn’t wear synthetic clothing when collecting samples, they were careful to seal the bottles immediately and limit any potential contaminants.

Zoya, a senior, said it was interesting to see what the microplastics looked like from place to place as the students tried to better understand the presence of plastics in local water.

“A lot of microplastics can be bright colors, but there are also a lot of clear and translucent ones,” she said. “For example, Horsetooth Reservoir had a lot of clear microplastics, which could be from boats, fishing lures and sunscreens.” 

The students shared their findings to local, regional and state leaders. Their work to spread the word included a presentation to Fort Collins’ City Council members, and recently heard that the city plans to conduct further research on this topic.

“We want to raise awareness and make people realize it’s not just affecting oceans,” Senior Skyler said.