Junior High is now called "Middle School." Did you know that? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t; until my son entered into the 6th grade two years ago I had no idea. And now that he’s in his last year, I get to stress about the almighty 8th grade science fair project.

You’d think that having a mother who’s immersed herself in a career in science would give you a heaping advantage when it comes to science projects, but here’s the God-honest truth: The project is always up to the kid … not the parent.

So it is that I had to accept the fact that my son’s choice of science projects involved … well … fecal material.

Not that all of them were poop-ish. All of them were, however, animal related. For which I am grateful, despite the animal stool theme that serves as his favorite subject matter. Here they are, for your consideration:

1. Can animal poop be used with a home-built methane digester to produce energy?

Animal feces form a large part of our landfill waste. In farms, animal manure has usually been recycled and used as fertilizer, but this doesn’t happen in cities. Feces from pets in individual homes and in places like dog parks are mostly disposed of as trash. If there were an efficient way to collect this waste, it could be put to use not only as fertilizer (for ornamental plants, not to grow food) but to produce energy, too. Using our pets' poop, home methane digesters could be utilized to produce electricity for uses such as exterior lighting (chemistry, ecology, veterinary medicine).

This project will use the feces of dogs and cats and process them in a methane digester. It will measure the methane gas produced, and from that measurement calculate the amount of energy that could be produced within a certain period and utilized for home use.

2. How does unemployment in Miami-Dade and Broward County affect the incidence of distemper virus in dogs within its animal shelters?

Last spring an outbreak of distemper virus in the Miami-Dade County Animal Services shelter shut down the facility for two weeks. It is thought that this happened because so many dogs in Miami-Dade County were not vaccinated against the disease. Vaccines are expensive and since many people today are jobless they have less money to pay for them.

This project will see if there is a correlation between the jobless rate in Miami-Dade County and distemper epidemics. If there is, maybe special vaccination clinics could be opened up where there are a lot of jobless people so distemper epidemics don’t happen.

3. How do Hispanic and non-Hispanic dog and cat owners in South Florida differ in how they think about pain in dogs and cats?

Pain relief: Dogs and cats should not be in too much pain when they’re injured or need surgery, but not every pet owner thinks this is so important. Some pet owners do not want to pay extra for expensive drugs to make the animals feel better because they don’t believe animals feel pain the same way humans do. There may be a cultural difference between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in how they think pain affects pets.

This project will survey Hispanic and non-Hispanic dog and cat owners to see if they think differently about pain in animals. Knowing this may help veterinarians give better advice to pet owners, so that pets will suffer less. It can also help pet owners make better decisions on giving pain medications to their pets.

4. How do surveyed dog and cat owners in South Florida differ in how they think of pain in dogs, cats, and exotic animal species like snakes, lizards and birds?

Pain relief is important in all animals because it is up to us to take care of our animals. But some people think that some types of animals, like reptiles, suffer less than mammals, and don’t think that it is important for them to take care of a snake, for example, as they would a dog or cat.

This project will survey pet owners of different types of animals to see how much pain they think their different pets can feel. It will also look into studies that try to measure pain in animals so these can be explained to the owners. Knowing this may help veterinarians give better advice to pet owners, and pets will suffer less. It can also help pet owners make better decisions on giving pain medications to their pets.

***

All four of these are up for grabs as far as his science teacher is concerned. Which is why I have to ask: If you were a science fair judge, which one would you choose?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: Anaerobic digestion process from The Park Spark Project

methane energy from animal feces, recycling dog poop, school science projects