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Herber Students Win State Title in Disney's Planet Challenge

Virginia DeLeo's eight grade research team take home top prize for New York State in environmental science competition.

The brilliant and hard-working eighth grade students in Virginia DeLeo's science research class at in Malverne beat out students throughout New York State in Disney's Planet Challenge competition.

Thousands of schools entered the environmental and science contest, which was open to students in Grades 3 to 8 across the country. Malverne's students received a score of 105 for their project,"Saving Our Species - One Step at a Time," blowing away their fellow competitors in New York to win the state title and coming just seven points shy of the grand prize. 

DeLeo delivered the good news to her students Tuesday.  "We got pretty excited. All of a sudden the whole class was yelling," Melissa Soliz, one of the students on the team told Patch. 

"The whole school was excited," Herber Principal Steven Gilhuley said, pointing out that this is only the second year the students entered the competition.

"We were very proud," eighth grader Adrian Ortega said of the class's accomplishment.

"It was a difficult project... a lot hours, a lot of work," said Briana Adkins. For months, Adkins and her classmates met before and after school and on Saturday mornings for several hours to work on their project. They focused on studying, preserving and restoring the biodiversity of a habitat located right on the grounds of .

Working with the, the students learned that a lake once existed where high school stands today.

"It was drained 50 years ago, and they built the high school, but it killed all the organisms," said Herber student Jesse Pace.

The stream it was connected to, Pine Brook, continued to flow through the grounds, requiring students to cross a bridge to get to the sports fields at one time, but when it was diverted underground decades later, the town created an open culvert at the far end of the high school field to "catch" the runoff.

Overtime, this watershed area has become overgrown with invasive plants and other species and its natural wildlife has been dying off, but it became the students' mission to not only study it, but rescue it too.

"We just want to give back a piece of what was taken away," Pace added.

"Our main focus was to show the loss of biodiversity here...remove invasive species and restore that habitat to what was once there," eighth grader Tosin Yeku said.

Working with a professor from Syracuse University, they learned how to identify which trees are natural to this habitat and which ones are invasive, meaning they are detrimental to the surrounding wildlife.

"We have more invasive trees in our habitat that don't belong there than native ones and we plan to get rid of them," said Lyndsey Capley, who added that the same species featured in the popular book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of the types that the students tagged, so the school district can remove them.

The kids have also made great strides to help bring back some of the wild creatures that once called this habitat home including bats, screech owls, salamanders and blue birds. With the help of Nehlsen Traslavina, the father of a former Intel student, and Chris Zimmerman, of The Giving Tree, who donated his time and materials, the students built six owl nesting boxes. Eric Powers, of Your Connection to Nature, even took them on a late-night 'owl prowl.'

"We didn't see anything, but we heard [screech owl] sounds and saw a shadow," Michael Guardado said of the walk. "That was an accomplishment. There was very little life there...but it's starting to come back."

The students said the hands-on research experience taught them far more than they could ever learn from reading a textbook.

"It inspired me to study and respect the environments around us," said Adrian Ortega, whose eyes lit up as he talked about how each student raised their own monarch butterfly. DeLeo said most of these butterflies would have never made it without the kids nurturing the larvae. "Most would've been eaten as eggs," she said.

The kids even observed things that contradicted what they read in books, motivating them to think outside the box. For instance, Ortega explained that when they noticed that a large percentage of the butterflies housed near a computer in the room were dying or becoming deformed, they conducted further tests and were able to conclude that electro-magnetic fields have an adverse effect on their development.

While winning the title was exciting, making an impact was what truly motivated the students and why many think the judges did score their project so high.

"We're just kids. People expect adults to do these things," Soliz said. "I hope people say if they can do it, why can't we?"

"I think they also liked our creativity," Briana McGovern added.

Gary Gauthier had another theory, saying he thinks the judges recognized them for not just the work they have done so far on the habitat, but also "what we will do in the future."

"We're fighting for something that can't fight for itself," Justin Williams added.

The students will continue to work on their habitat and will be presenting their project later this year at the Brookhaven National Lab, which sponsored them. Next month, in celebration of Earth Day they will also start incubating bobtail quail in their classroom and later release them out east into their natural habitat.

"This is a great group of kids," DeLeo said. "If a teacher could have this class for 100 years, they would teach for 100 years."

One of the students, Ashley Akaeze, said she hopes that years after she graduates from high school, she and her classmates can return to the habitat they adopted and find that it's thriving with many types of animals.

"I hope to see it return to its natural beauty and that younger people still care about it," she said. 

To learn how you can donate to the students' project, email Tara.Conry@Patch.com.

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