Recruiting students to science through hands-on learning

Students and professors work at Blowing Springs in Arkansas.

To really get into the geosciences, you gotta get your hands in there. 

That was the hypothesis, more or less, behind a unique science experiment that Abe Springer, a professor of ecohydrogeology in NAU’s School of Earth and Sustainability, ran over the course of 2022. This experiment, published in November in Discover Water, looked at a concerning problem: fewer students are majoring in geosciences and other water-related programs. 

This matters because the protection of springs, groundwater and other water sources has never been at greater risk from humans than it is now. Without industry professionals, however, the risk only increases. 

Students and professors work at Orenda Spring in Saratoga Spa Springs State Park in New York.
Students and professors work at Orenda Spring in Saratoga Spa Springs State Park in New York.

Ergo, Springer determined, more students needed to get excited about water. He was in a distinct position to tackle this head-on; as the 2022 Birdsall-Dreiss lecturer for the Geological Society of America’s hydrogeology scientific division, he spent a year traversing the world talking to people about his work. Through this position, he implemented his proposed solution: after each lecture, he introduced an interactive half-day field-based workshop that allowed students to measure and assess the health and flow of a local spring, including preparing equipment to take into the field, leading data collection, coordinating laboratory analyses and entering the information into an international springs database.  

“The field workshops were designed to have students interact with a wide variety of experts on the natural and cultural aspects of springs as ecosystems,” said Springer, whose work in spring health, karst hydrogeology and the valuation of water has made him an international expert on the topic. (What is karst?) “The hosts at many of the locations are now using the springs as long-term learning environments because of their ease of access and potential for providing interdisciplinary learning opportunities.” 

Water workshops 

Springer worked with researchers at each host institution to organize the workshops; they identified a local spring (sometimes on campus, sometimes a little farther removed) to study. Students then conducted detailed physical, ecological and cultural inventories of the ecosystem; they collected water flow and chemistry data, inventoried plants and animals and executed cultural use assessments. It was the first time any of the participating students had been part of an interdisciplinary inventory team. 

For the students, this offered an opportunity to experience what they’d be doing in geosciences, to put to use what they learned in the classroom

Students and professors work at Dry Run Spring in West Virginia
Dry Run Spring in West Virginia

and to understand, on both the small and large scale, the state of water health. On the small scale—these springs are in the students’ own ecosystems. When they go into classes and do labs, they may be studying these same springs—or hiking by them in their downtime or benefiting from the clean water and plant life these ecosystems contribute. 

On the large scale, Springer said, the data collected in this project offered promising results about the health of these springs.  

“Even springs visited on the tour that had significant human impacts were not fully diverted and continued to support some ecosystem functions,” Springer said. “The most important management recommendation for springs is to allow some water to discharge where water emerges from the Earth. If all of the water is diverted, then the opportunity for the unique habitats supported by springs is lost.” 

As for the rest of the experiment: Eight of the participating students are co-authors on the paper, and Springer said these activities help students be excited about their work in the natural world and motivate them to study these critical disciplines. The next step for the next lecturer will be figuring out how to assess the effects of such work. 

Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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NAU Communications