Geology students get hands-on educational, career experience

Wading into muddy creeks to measure stream velocity or going out in the rain to gather water samples was about more than just completing a project for the 11 members of last year’s geology senior seminar research class.

Their student-designed analysis of creeks in the Cullowhee community and how groundwater and streamwater interact was about applying everything they had learned in their courses; designing—and then revising—an effective research project; working in teams; writing and creating graphs for a professional research report; gaining an invitation to present at a national conference; interacting with professionals in the field; getting exposed to fields within their field that gave them ideas for their careers;  and, most of all, being part of an effort that continues today at WCU that could help improve water quality.

“I realized how much fun it is to actually put what we learned in class into practice, and how gratifying it was to see a project that we had designed turn out so well and be used to help the groundwater evaluation sites be established at WCU,” said John Hayes, a May graduate from Chapel Hill. “Water is one of the most valuable resources we have, and we need to do more to protect it so it is clean and does not run out.”

The students’ research, which was shared in two presentations at the Geological Society of America meeting held last spring in Baltimore, proved to be preliminary work on sites that are now part of the developing WCU Hydrologic Station through the state’s Groundwater Resource Evaluation Program.

After several years of discussion and planning by Ted Campbell, a hydrogeologist with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Mark Lord, head of WCU’s Geosciences and Natural Resources Department, WCU has partnered with the N.C. Division of Water Quality and committed to participate in regular groundwater and streamwater research and monitoring. This fall, the state has installed about 40 shallow groundwater wells at depths ranging from 5 to 25 feet solely for research as part of the initiative. Wells were installed near Wake Robin Drive past the intersection with Little Savannah Road, uphill of the fire station on Little Savannah Road, on the main campus in the vicinity of the former golf driving range and Catamount Athletic Complex.

“For us, it is an opportunity to partner with a university that is doing work of common interest,” said Campbell, who leads the Groundwater Resource Evaluation Program for the state and has collaborated with WCU students on a variety of environmental projects. “We look for partners who are also interested in a geologic area that we want to know more about and for a site that allows us to study groundwater and surface water interactions in more detail. By working with WCU on this project, we can leverage our resources to learn more about groundwater and stream interactions, and water quality in these settings, which will help us to determine whether or not current approaches to sampling and permitting are appropriate and optimally effective.”

Last fall’s senior geology senior seminar research class designed projects with an eye toward understanding how groundwater and streamwater influence each other, said Lord, who was a senior research seminar adviser along with Steve Yurkovich, now professor emeritus. Past senior geology research seminar classes also have focused on regionally important problems such as landslides in Haywood County, paleoclimate analysis of a wetland in Panthertown and the impact of Dillsboro dam on the Tuckaseigee River.

“Right now, groundwater and streamwater are managed separately,” said Lord. “This is a great example of giving students a terrific learning experience that is authentic and real in which they collaborate with professionals in a wide variety of disciplines on research that is important to our region. Understanding our groundwater resources is increasingly important as we see more development and, as we saw in recent years, with drought conditions that caused wells to run dry. The more we know, the better informed we will be in making decisions that affect the quantity and quality of water in our community.”

Wendy Ford, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described the research and development of the WCU Hydrologic Station as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for students and faculty whose findings from gathering water quality information at local sites could ultimately have significant implications regionally and nationally. This semester, students currently in an upper-level geology course called “Hydrogeology” are already working at the new sites to explore water quality and the sites’ environmental history. Their research, mentored by Lord and Dave Kinner, assistant professor of geology, is planned for presentation at a professional geology conference next spring.

“The research experiences and career networking opportunities our undergraduate students are now developing through their work in the field in close partnership with the Division of Water Quality are unparalleled on any campus in North Carolina,” said Ford.

Lord said he has been particularly impressed by some of the connections his students revealed about their work with the project in the reflection component of the course—a component geology faculty strengthened as part of implementing WCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan. The plan encourages students to reflect on the meaning of what they do and how it relates to their goals, and students were asked to write reflection papers after presenting at the national conference.

Several students noted in their reflection papers that attending the national conference helped them identify the specific areas they would like to pursue.

Rachael Tury, who is currently a research assistant at WCU, shared that she had a new perspective of how big the field of geology is and the amount of work and collaboration it takes to conduct studies.

“I was able to meet with petrologists, hydrologists, consultants, sedimentologists and many more different professionals, who were able to tell me about their jobs,” said Tury.

She also said their feedback—positive and negative—to the student research presentation gave her ideas about how she could conduct future research of small basins in Western North Carolina.

“Being able to share my research with other geologists was amazing,” wrote Tury. “Overall, this was just an exciting opportunity, and being able to interact with so many geologists who share the same interests as me was just unexplainable.”

For Danvey Walsh, a recent WCU graduate who was part of last year’s seminar course, the entire research experience helped him decide what he wanted to pursue in his studies and piqued his interest in the field. Walsh is currently pursuing a master’s degree in hydrogeology at the University of Nevada in Reno and is a research assistant at the Desert Research Institute working on a 3-D geothermal reservoir modeling project.

“I hope to obtain skills that will one day help me return to this area of research with greater understanding and insight,” said Walsh. “I really learned that there is a lack of public education when it comes to groundwater and water issues. I hope this project can help reach out and inform the community about where our water really comes from.”