Infographic by Elizabeth Jantz

Infographic by Elizabeth Jantz

By Hadel-Lynn Leyco



Pouring mud into a container, and adjusting two wires to a 90 degree angle, students prepared their materials for their new creation. From Oct. 16-19, students from Jennifer Ekstein’s biology class became the first class to create an alternative energy source, microbial fuel cells, which converts cellular respiration from bacteria feeding on mud to create a form of electrical energy.

“I was impressed with the models they created [when] we visited the models the next day. I looked them over [to see] if there were any areas where they were weak, I retaught and revamped on it. There was a reflection on it so they could learn and understand what the concept was.” Ekstein said.

Over the past summer, Ekstein was given a grant through a combination of the district, the office of Naval Research, and University of California, San Diego, by signing up for it and  having to take several classes.  The Naval Research office purchased 16 microbial fuel cells, or “Mud Watts”, for the class, and was able to provide as a guest Dr. Ken Richter to facilitate the experiment.

“He’s building microbial fuel cells that go deep down in the ocean, and they’re going to be powering hydrophones for the U.S. Navy so they can listen for ships and mammals. The whole purpose was to generate something that they didn’t have to pick up constantly, because every two years the batteries go dead on the ocean floor and you have to leave them.” Ekstein said.

Biology teacher, Dr. Michelle Mardahl explains the relevance of microbial fuel cell energy to other living organisms.

“All life has to take organic matter and convert it to energy- we [as humans] use the mitochondria in our cells to produce energy by cellular respiration otherwise we wouldn’t have the ability to think, move or act.” Mardahl said.

Ekstein and her biology classes were able to present their findings to the Rueben H. Fleet Science Center.

“It was a great experience, I had three other students with me to help me out when I couldn’t say anything, but I tried not to look at the people and I relaxed a little more.” freshman Kiana Rose said.

The Mud Watts are to stay in the classroom, as Ekstein plans on using it as a reference to other aspects of biology.

“I can always refer back to these because the concept is there. I’m going to be talking about populations. I can talk about the populations of bacteria in here, there’s the ecology component to it, here’s the chemistry. It really hits when we talk about alternative fuels, it’s a type of alternative year.” Ekstein said.

Students hope to perform more hands-on experiments in order to enhance their understanding of the topic, as well as have fun performing and creating the experiments, while learning about real-world situations.

“I think the most fun part was that we got to build them and experiment with the microbial fuel cells. Except for the mud, it smelled really bad and I didn’t want to touch it.” Rose said.

Overall, these experiments help to expose students to various real-world situations that a classroom alone can not provide.

“I think it’s really important to expose all students of all different sciences to research, and that was the point. It’s important for even regular biology, they need to experience science and [know] how it is in real life.” Ekstein said.