'Get Your Hands Dirty' Research

Ecohydrology students making a difference at Alum Creek

10/27/2009 - By: John Trent

Get your hands dirty research

Research can be serious or tedious, as easily as it can be rewarding or frustrating.

And then, of course, there is the type of research that has captured the heart of Scott Fennema this semester.

"I love being out in the field, and that’s one of the main reasons why I have this major … to get my hands dirty," says Fennema, a 23-year-old junior Ecohydrology major from Fernley. He is part of a group of undergraduate students who are getting their hands dirty as part of professor Mark Walker’s Ecohydrology Field Methods course.

The work done by Fennema and his classmates at Alum Creek in west Reno goes well beyond the obvious enjoyment of conducting research each Saturday morning in one of Reno’s most sylvan spots, however.

The students have been busily gathering important data that could prove useful for members of the Caughlin Ranch homeowners’ association, the Caughlin Ranch board of directors, the City of Reno and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.

The Alum Creek watershed, though beautiful and representing one of Reno’s most defining greenbelts, is also at an environmental crossroads of sorts, having been added to the State of Nevada’s Impaired Waters List.

The students, under Walker’s direction and with help from professor Laurel Saito’s Small Watershed Hydrology class, have been collecting water samples at five different points along Alum Creek, and have measured flow using a Marsh-McBirney flow meter.

"I’ve been really been impressed with how willing the students have been to do the work," Walker says. As is his custom, Walker dressed in a yellow windbreaker on a recent chilly October morning, has ridden his bike to campus. His book bag, slung over one shoulder, overflows not only with textbooks but with exotic-looking equipment for the ongoing field work.

"They’ve been great," Walker says, his soft words turning even more fatherly. "They show up at 9 a.m. on Saturdays – and you know how Saturday mornings can be for some students – and they keep working, till 2 p.m. or so, well past the allotted time. They really seem to enjoy what they’re doing."

The students feel so motivated, they say, because the work seems so important. What resonates with the students is their experience in the field, and the fact that they are working with data that will certainly have real-world application.

"It’s never been a problem to get up early for this class," says Patrick Freeze, a 29-year-old junior Environmental Science major from Hamilton, Texas. "It’s not like it’s a classroom setting. Time flies by when we’re out in the field. It really does."

Adds Fennema, who originally wished to major in Engineering but has now found a happy confluence between the outdoors, the environment, design and numbers in the field of Ecohydrology: "I always feel I learn a lot more outdoors, when I’m out there doing something. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot."

It is exactly what Walker had hoped to accomplish when he created the class.

"I wanted to make sure that our students had real, practical, field-based experiences before they go out and try to find a job," he says.

Walker, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources and State Extension Water Specialist, brings a unique sensibility to the course.

He has an extensive record as a researcher and instructor at the University, having worked on numerous water projects, both in urban areas and in rural locales, throughout the state of Nevada and in California. In addition to his graduate degrees, his holds undergraduate degrees in English and Journalism from State University New York at Binghamton.

He has a humane and humorous way to him, which often sets the stage for a notable, quite effective ability to take ideas, design and data and turn them into understanding. In his own measured, quiet way, Walker nevertheless passes out knowledge and enthusiasm for research at an almost electric rate.

"I’m glad to have Mark as our teacher," Fennema says. "He understands this field so well, and relates it really well to all of us. As long as we have our data set up, it should speak for itself."

It’s important that the data does stand up. In mid-November, as part of the course’s requirements, the students will present their findings to the Caughlin Ranch homeowners’ association.

Hands Dirty ResearchIn class on a recent Thursday, Walker briefly went over the expectations for the coming weekend. When he was finished, the whiteboard at the front of the class – a spaghetti-like series of x’s and interlocking diagrams of various stream gradients showing how water was being carried out of the sub-saturated zones of the Alum Creek watershed – looked like something that would make John Madden proud.

"This will set the stage to compare sulfate and phosphorous levels to see if chemical or physical gradients influence the water in the creek," Walker says.

Such comparisons are central not only to the mid-November presentation, but what next steps could be followed in order to manage the multitude of impairments facing the Alum Creek watershed, which exists primarily from inputs from the nearby Steamboat Ditch, the 40-plus-mile irrigation canal that was constructed in the late 19th century to help expedite runoff from the Sierra for irrigation in the Truckee Meadows. The impairments include E. coli, phosphorous, total suspended solids, sulfates, water temperature, turbidity and iron.

"You guys are going to have to stand up in front of the Caughlin Ranch homeowners’ association and in five minutes tell a coherent and compelling story, which is a lot to do," Walker says. "Before we even get there, we have to know what story we’re telling."

Ashley Reid, a 20-year-old junior from Reno and an Environmental Science major, says she expects to be "nervous" when she and her classmates present. She hopes one day to be a scientist with the National Park Service, which will no doubt include not only copious amounts of research, but many moments like the upcoming homeowners’ presentation, where being a good storyteller will be just as important as being a good scientist.

"That’s what makes this class so good," she says. "It definitely feels like less of a waste of time. Some classes you feel like, ‘I’m never going to use this.’ With this class, you know you’re practicing real skills that you will definitely use again."

For Freeze, who originally gravitated toward the fine arts because of his love of oils, paints and sketching, the design of the natural world has held a strong gravitational pull. He says that perhaps the course’s greatest real-world application has to do with the notion of community, and how an individual can make a difference in the community in which they live.

"I remember going to Alum Creek for the first time and I went, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know Reno has a place like this … it’s so green,’" he says. "A class like this really does tie us into the community … it brings the community into the school, and makes the community something to care about."

There is also the matter of teamwork. All involved in the class agree that the course has worked so well because all of the class’ strengths have been used.

As an example, Andrew Hill, a 20-year-old Business major from Carson City, could be considered a fish out of water. Working on his Information Systems degree – and coming from a family where his father is a hydrologist – he was looking for an interesting course to fill his schedule.

"It’s been pretty cool, using all the instrumentation … using the flow gage, things like that," he says. "Seeing a watershed up close like this and then doing something that will impact the community has been really cool."

The course has helped him broaden his definition of how far an Information Systems degree will take him.

"It’s really opened my eyes," Hill says. "With an Information Systems degree, in a field like Ecohydrology, you could do some exciting things, like mapping, on the tech side, an entire watershed , or putting together a great website. It could have a lot of value the research being done."

Adds Fennema: "That’s just one example of how we work as a team. Everyone is using their abilities. I play in the dirt pretty well, Patrick is amazing with his spread sheets and data. We all have our different niches."

So playing in the dirt has its rewards?

"If there were more classes like this one," says Fennema, his words dancing with possibility, "I would take them every semester."


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