A native of Fenton, Missouri, Darrin Peters didn’t grow up on a farm or study agriculture in school. But now, as the teacher of real-world application chemistry classes at Rockwood Summit High School, he has earned a reputation as an outstanding advocate for the field.
It all started when one of Peters’ students asked to make biodiesel in lab. Through the process, the students learned more about where food and fuel comes from, and decided to test quality of the fuel sample through the University of Connecticut, yielding positive results.
“This success motivated my students like nothing I have seen in my career,” remembers Peters. “Students began to ask me, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own processor to make biodiesel for a truck?’ And I agreed that it would.”
Through Peters’ leadership, they formed an after- school club and sought grants to expand their biodiesel projects beyond the classroom. It also gave students another option for after-school activities. Then in 2015, the students’ pursuit for knowledge in agricultural sciences got another boost. A lab project, which started with recycling the school cafeteria’s waste oil into biodiesel and glycerin, expanded to planting soybeans on school grounds with local farmers, including help from longtime agricultural leader and soybean farmer Warren Stemme.
Reflecting back on his involvement, Stemme “hopes students learned that growing a crop, like soybeans, is weather-dependent and that there are very small windows of opportunity in which the crop can be planted, nurtured and harvested for the optimum yield potential.”
Stemme also took students on a tour of the Mid-America Biofuels plant in Mexico, Missouri, to show that the school’s small-scale biodiesel project really does work on a large, commercial-scale basis.
“We wanted to show students that we are continually tweaking the process of making biodiesel to have the highest-quality, lowest production cost product available. We also face production challenges that we must address, just as students did with their project,” says Stemme.
To bring the biodiesel project full circle, Peters brought a small-scale soybean crusher to school when it was harvest time.
“This showed kids how soybeans have to be pressed into protein meal before they can be used to feed livestock. The byproduct of the meal is soybean oil (vegetable oil) which we chemically convert into biodiesel,” explains Peters.
Thanks to a grant, when students finished making the fuel, they were able to test it out in a 1991 Dodge Ram. The glycerin was made into soap and sold to automotive shops in the community.
The Project That Keeps On Giving
With plans to continue to expand the students’ crop space, Peters says the biodiesel project at Rockwood Summit is constantly evolving and improving.
“This coming school year (2017-18), we’ll collect waste vegetable oil from Washington University, convert it into biodiesel and sell it back to Washington University as a B50 blend,” he says. “I feel American agriculture is the best in the world and that many unknown opportunities could be cultivated through the sciences of agriculture, organic chemistry and biochemistry.”
Looking to the future, Stemme is also committed to providing assistance as an “ag connection” for as long as the program continues.
“One idea I have is for the students to travel to Jefferson City to learn about the legislative process at the state capitol, and help promote agriculture and renewable fuels like biodiesel to urban legislators. This would also have a great impact on urban legislators, when they are faced with decisions on how to vote on ag issues.”
What started as a simple experimental lab project is now a stepping stone – an opportunity to connect young people with agriculture through meaningful dialogue.
Learning About the Science of Agriculture
A chemistry and biodiesel project student weighs in: “Growing up with a family of farmers, I was only ever exposed to the daily-chores aspect and never realized that agriculture could be so technical or scientific.
Then I became part of the biodiesel project in my sophomore year, and as a junior and senior, I served as a leader in the club, working with engineers to enhance our processor and serving as an ambassador at community events.
This involvement allowed me to realize and understand how chemistry and agriculture are dependent on each other. It was also a great way to apply what I learned in my organic chemistry class to something practical.
I am actually still working on programming our processor so that it is fully automated, which is something I never thought I would do. To grow the soybeans, we also installed a compost bin and some rain barrels, so it was really intriguing to expand the breadth of this program even further.
If there are any students in the St. Louis County area that would like to get involved with the project, I would encourage them to reach out to their teachers who can contact us. This year, we are expanding our community outreach by welcoming interactive eld trips at our facility in order to present these amazing opportunities to as many kids as possible.”
– Michaela Murphy, 2017 graduate of Rockwood Summit HS