Some mad scientists in Illinois have been experimenting with sheep as a producer of natural fertilizer, according to a story in the Naperville Sun. Their conclusion: sheep dung makes grass grow green and doesn’t pollute local waterways.

We should clarify. The researchers in question are four perfectly sane Naperville, Illinois sixth-graders going into middle school in the fall, and the MADScientists nickname is an anagram based on the first letters of their names: Meera Dullur, 12; Anjali Shah, 11; Diya Kannan, 11; and Sanskriti Aggarwal. Their science project won the 16th annual eCYBERMISSION competition held in June in Reston, Virginia.

The young women participate in a web-based science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program sponsored by the U.S. Army and administered by the National Science Teachers Association. They worked with team adviser Srimani Chakravarthi to solve the problem of phosphorus runoff affecting the ecosystem of local ponds and streams.

For their project, the team planted tall fescue grass seed in trays of soil. Each tray contained a different type of fertilizer; manure from cows, goats and sheep; coconut peat moss; and a synthetic variety used by the park district and nearby golf courses.

The study determined that sheep dung created the best grass yield compared to synthetic fertilizer and doesn’t contain as much phosphorus. The element is problematic because when it rains, phosphorus and other nutrients from fertilizers flows into area ponds and rivers causing oxygen-consuming, fish-killing algal blooms.

The Naperville team was among 20 national finalists that emerged from the total of 4,345 teams that had entered the competition. Each of the young women received U.S. Savings Bonds worth $9,000 when mature. The four also received the Army Values Award, presented to the one team among all the levels that exhibited attributes esteemed by the Army, such as loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

Now the young researchers want to test their theories further at a local park. They are going to have to modify their previous experiment, however, because they’d mixed the dung into the soil before planting the seeds. Sanskriti said the group will have to figure out another way to make it easier to apply the sheep dung to already established lawns.