COVENTRY TWP.: Last fall, Jim Trogdon's sixth-grade science class at Coventry Middle School researched Northeast Ohio's biggest environmental concerns, looking for a problem they could do something about.
After a field trip to the Ohio State University's freshwater biological field station on Gibraltar Island near Put-in-Bay, they had their answer.
''The kids researched the project and they found out that the algal bloom up in Lake Erie was historic this summer,'' Trogdon said.
According to an October report from the National Wildlife Federation, ''the summer of 2011 witnessed one of the most extensive harmful algal blooms ever recorded for western Lake Erie.''
It was still visible from docks in October.
''It was eye-opening to see how bad it actually is,'' said 12-year-old Jacob Stahl.
The explosive growth of the plant-like organisms is due to an overabundance of nutrients in the water from a variety of sources, including fertilizer runoff from farm fields and lawns.
The science students decided the best thing they could do for Lake Erie would be to tell people in their own community to keep motor oil, deep-fryer grease, grass fertilizers, detergents and other common junk out of storm sewers.
So they started Tuesday with the storm sewer right in front of their school on Cormany Road.
They used a plastic stencil to spray paint the outline of a fish and a warning not to dump waste into the storm sewer. When it warms up in April, they'll work with township officials and the Summit Soil and Water Conservation District to apply similar warnings on at least 25 more storm sewers throughout Coventry Township.
''When you wash your car in the driveway, it just comes down. And fertilizer when you fertilize your lawn,'' said Cydney Barker, 11, who held the spray-paint can while Jacob steadied the stencil and their classmates looked on.
Technically, the runoff in that area flows away from Lake Erie into the Tuscarawas River, but the students' broader message is to keep fertilizer, motor oil, detergent and grease out of the storm sewers.
''I seriously did not know until we did this project that stormwater is not treated, and so whatever is dumped there goes right into the rivers and streams,'' Trogdon said.
The project hits many of the academic standards that Ohio sixth-graders must meet, said Trogdon, who is working with Chris Lorence, the school's instructional technology teacher.
But the students have another incentive besides scoring well on state tests: a possible trip to Disney World.
They plan to submit their project to the Disney Planet Challenge, a competition that promotes solving local environmental problems caused by human activity with science. Last year, Trogdon's students won the state-level Disney contest by helping to root out invasive plants in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This year, his ''Coventry Conservation Crew'' hopes to win Disney's grand prize.
EarthEcho International, a nonprofit organization founded by the grandchildren of famed ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, is going to help spread the word.
''We had a conference call with EarthEcho last night Philippe Cousteau's organization and they're willing to help us out on this and get a more global audience,'' Trogdon said.
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.