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West Fargo STEM students present solutions at oil conference

FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple West Fargo students Nastesho Ulow, center, and Jesse Price present their research on carbon dioxide sequestration to Marathon Oil CEO Lee Tillman on Wednesday at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck.

BISMARCK — Sixteen junior high students from West Fargo won the rare opportunity to rub elbows with oil company executives here on Wednesday — and offer a few tips on how to solve problems in their industry.

The eighth-graders from Cheney Middle School won a STEM competition — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for the right to display their research and solutions at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference at the Bismarck Civic Center.

Science teacher Candida Braun came up with the idea, assigning her students to identify real challenges facing the oil industry and brainstorm solutions.

Braun said she finds that students take more interest in subjects that affect them.

“In this case, it impacts our entire state,” she said.

Braun contacted the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, which agreed to participate and encouraged industry officials to stop by the displays on Wednesday.

Department Director Lynn Helms said “the time is really right” for the students to interact and network with oil industry executives, as the students represent the next generation of North Dakotans who will influence the direction of the state’s oil industry.

“They have the opportunity to really change the Bakken and Three Forks play as it plays out,” he said.

At one of the poster presentations, students Sadiyo Hassan, Emily Martin, Jesse Price and Nastesho Ulow explained the benefits of using carbon dioxide sequestration for enhanced oil recovery. They noted that a typical Bakken well recovers only about 5 percent of the reservoir’s oil, and that Canada and Texas are both using CO2 sequestration to boost recovery.

It wasn’t just for show: The quartet calling itself the “Petroleum Problems Solvers” handed out business cards encouraging takers to contact North Dakota’s U.S. senators to put sequestration into action.

“We want the citizens to speak out and voice their opinions so we can have this,” Hassan said.

The students said they learned a lot about the oil industry through the project.

“You’re just seeing all these problems and you think, OK, nobody’s doing anything about this,” Price said.

Marathon Oil CEO Lee Tillman, the featured speaker at the conference Wednesday, was among those who heard the team’s presentation.

Ulow said she and her classmates had studied the topic for two months and enjoyed getting to discuss it with someone who works in the oil and gas industry.

“To meet someone who has been doing this their whole life was really exciting,” Ulow said.

The other three presentations dealt with reducing the flaring of natural gas, salt water purification and sharing oil revenues with communities.

Helms praised the event as a natural next step in the conference’s educational component, which began two years ago with fourth-graders touring the big machinery and other outdoor exhibits to capture their imagination. Bismarck hosts the conference every other year.

“I hope it’s something that we can do every time we’re here in Bismarck,” he said.

For the competition, a total of 83 students were divided into 20 STEM teams. The top four teams were chosen by teachers, a state health official, a regional STEM instructor, an assistant principal and a curriculum expert, Braun said.

The students were destined for another sweet reward on Wednesday. An impressed oil company official slipped Braun a $100 bill to treat them to ice cream afterward.

“They’ll be so excited,” she said.

 Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this article.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.