Winning Project at State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa Seeks to Improve Water Quality

May 28, 2021, 2:28 pm | Marybeth Foster

AMES, Iowa – When youth have the opportunity to learn something new in Iowa 4-H, sometimes it’s hard to predict where the opportunity will take them. In the case of Ananya Balaji and Shreya Srinath of Story County, a project in one 4-H program led to a win at the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa.

4-H youth team wins state science fair.The Ames-based team first came together in 2020 to complete in the Iowa 4-H AgOvation competition. Their adult mentor is Kapil Arora, a field agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Arora encouraged them to compete in SSTFI.  

AgOvation is a research-based competition that challenges youth to explore and develop innovative, science-based solutions to agricultural problems that they identify in their own communities. Youth in grades 7-12 work in teams to develop a project and create a presentation to share their results.

The team demonstrated how to improve water quality by removing excess nutrients. They used chemistry and engineering to devise two methods, one for removing phosphate and one for removing nitrates. These strategies could be implemented in buffer strips and bioreactors at the edge of fields to reduce nutrient contamination in water ways.

Balaji said the pair wanted to come up with a project for AgOvation that would be “interesting to do with a problem we thought we could solve and make a big impact.”

Srinath said the contamination of waterways leads to algae blooms and dead zones, and when in the soil, too many nitrates or phosphates create problems.

Balaji explained water tiles used in Iowa and the Midwest move the water from fields to water ways, carrying the nitrates and phosphates.

“We wanted to create a novel catalyst to de-nitrate the water or convert to nitrogen to make them less harmful,” Balaji said.

To deal with phosphates, the duo designed a biochar to be located in an erosion sock that can be used as a buffer strip in fields to absorb the surface runoff.

Based on that experience, Balaji and Srinath submitted the project to SSTFI and won their category. The team presented their solutions to a panel of judges virtually and provided the results of demonstrations they did at home in their own yards.

Balaji and Srinath, members of 4-H since second grade, are looking forward to further testing their solutions. The eighth-graders plan to apply for the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) middle school STEM competition in June.

For more information on the Iowa 4-H Youth Development program, please contact your ISU Extension and Outreach county office or visit the Iowa 4-H website at

Photo caption: (Left to right) Ananya Balaji and Shreya Srinath, Story County, plan to apply for the Broadcom MASTERS middle school STEM competition in June.

Contact: Nate Weber, 4-H Youth Program Specialist, 515-294-4448, 

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