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Howard County students inspire future caretakers of the natural world

Bill Tong, Columbia, 17, left, and David Balakirsky,15, of Clarksville, look at an aquarium like the ones they supply to schools through the Bioma Project. Tong, founded the initiative in 2014 to bring hands-on environmental education to students. Each tank contains 11 species of plants and animals.
Bill Tong, Columbia, 17, left, and David Balakirsky,15, of Clarksville, look at an aquarium like the ones they supply to schools through the Bioma Project. Tong, founded the initiative in 2014 to bring hands-on environmental education to students. Each tank contains 11 species of plants and animals. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

While agreeing that cleanups along trails, highways and streams benefit the environment, four Clarksville Middle School students came to believe that such efforts weren’t making enough of a difference.

Trash and debris collected by volunteers is hauled away only to gradually pile up again, they observed. They wanted to target the root cause of environmental apathy, not just react to it.

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That was 2014, the year the Bioma Project was born.

The group, now in high school, started putting aquariums in elementary and middle school classrooms the following year — along with sharing their 40-page curriculum — to inspire younger students to become the future caretakers of the natural world.

As a new school year begins, they’re scouting for more teachers interested in providing students with a year of hands-on learning at no cost.

The project’s leadership team includes Atholton senior Bill Tong, founder and chief executive officer; River Hill seniors Omar Niazi, chief operating officer, and Vedaant Shah, chief technological officer; and River Hill junior David Balakirsky, chief financial officer.

They named their project for its focus on the biome, a large region comprised of many ecosystems. They chose “bioma” since that word occurs in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, thereby aligning their project with a long-term goal of expanding to other countries.

The teens have worked with 900 students at 29 schools, 20 of which have already indicated they will continue with the project, in which aquariums stand in for local stream ecosystems.

“The students observe the interactions between plant and animal species and test hypotheses by conducting experiments in the tank,” Tong said, summing up the project’s premise to rethink environmental education.

One of the biggest advantages of their self-contained, portable ecosystems: “No field trips are required; the kids take care of the tank and learn," Shah said.

The project leaders also bring virtual reality headsets that can simulate a visit to the Amazon rain forest, Alaska, South America or Australia. The tool has proved to be a popular way to indoctrinate students to global issues, Niazi said.

The 10- to 20-gallon aquariums are provided for free to participating classrooms through fundraising and donations of equipment by student leaders and volunteers. The tanks are stocked with up to 10 species of plants and animals from small tributaries of the Middle Patuxent River that flow through the county.

The “critters,” as they like to call them, include Eastern blacknose dace, grass shrimp, pond snails and river clams. They are released into streams at the end of each school year. Plants include bacopa, elodea, stream moss, duckweed, azolla and ludwigia.

The project leaders also run an aquaculture lab, where students breed and sell ornamental fish and donate the proceeds to conservationist causes.

The Bioma Project arose from an independent project called Fishery Science that Tong developed with his fellow classmates to help raise rainbow trout to stock the Patuxent River.

The idea was inspired by school visits from members of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of freshwater streams, rivers and upland habitats.

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The popular class, which involved fishing trips to an adjacent farm pond during the school day, was overseen by gifted and talented program resource teacher Phil Herdman. He teaches history at Mt. Hebron High School now while continuing to serve as a mentor.

“It almost got to the point in middle school where I had to remind Bill that I had a main job and I couldn’t work on it all day,” Herdman said of the Bioma Project.

He nominated Tong in 2016 for the Tawes Youth Award, which he won for his work on Fishery Science. The award is given annually by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Just this year, Tong was named a second-place winner of an International Eco-Hero Award for founding the Bioma Project. The awards are sponsored by Action for Nature, an international nonprofit based in San Francisco.

“It’s been interesting to work with Bill and the other students, who have put together a remarkable program,” Herdman said, noting the quartet’s zeal for their project.

Though the group was split between two high schools after graduating from Clarksville, they’ve managed to stay together.

“We want to reach out to future generations who will one day inherit the earth,” Tong said, noting that having a shared goal has enabled them to maintain momentum.

Two gifted and talented resource teachers at Swansfield Elementary School in Columbia, who were among the first to host aquariums in their classrooms, praised the teens’ leadership skills and recommended the Bioma Project for all elementary grades.

“These students have made learning about native plants and animals and food chains easy and fun,” Tara Diventi and Laine Malcotti said, while emphasizing the high quality of the group’s curriculum.

The students’ principals, Robert Motley of Atholton and Kathryn McKinley of River Hill, also praised the students’ initiative.

“It is heartwarming to know that students of Bill’s generation are seeking ways to improve efforts in delivering instruction and empowering students to take ownership of their learning,” Motley said.

McKinley said River Hill “is proud of these students for their commitment and hard work on a project they started in middle school. Students can and do make a positive difference in our community.”

While all four student leaders envision serving as mentors to whomever eventually takes over the program, plans after high school graduation vary.

Tong, who foresees being connected in some way to the Bioma Project in perpetuity, is considering taking a “gap year” before applying to college. He wants to take time to investigate entrepreneurial opportunities, such as creating an online gene bank for aquatic species and exporting the project to other countries.

He’d also like to establish a youth environmental commission to create a central place for young activists to speak out on environmental issues.

Niazi is considering a major in biology, environment science or political science. He’s also thinking about starting a similar ecosystem program in the elementary and middle schools near the college he ends up attending.

He figures his experience in building the curriculum for the Bioma Project and in conducting community outreach will come in handy in pursuing grant money.

Shah, who plans to major in computer science and math, said he intends to continue to support the project in some capacity.

“The concept is self-sufficient and simple, and it should be everywhere,” he said.

Balakirsky, who’s interested in studying robotics and computer science in college, said team members will present their concept to the Howard County Recreation and Parks department, which operates the Robinson Nature Center, and to the Howard County Conservancy with the hopes of arranging camp experiences during the off-season.

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He said they could use their cut of camp fees to help pay for aquarium tanks, virtual reality headsets and other supplies.

“This is all about convincing young kids to get outdoors and explore nature,” Balakirsky said.

Niazi said the team’s newest goals include reaching a larger audience, developing partnerships and recruiting their own replacements.

“We’ll be holding an interest meeting at River Hill and asking students to complete an application,” Niazi said. “We want to entrust that we’re leaving this project in good hands.”

For more information or to arrange to host a classroom aquarium, go to biomaproject.org.

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