Giving graduate students a hands-on approach to hydrology

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dr. Brewster Conant kneels to measure the depth to water in a newly installed drivepoint piezometer.Each spring, the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences raises the bar with their renowned research in hydrology. Offering graduate students the opportunity to step outside the classroom and gain hands-on learning experiences from a variety of national and global field professionals is what sets this unique Science program apart from its competitors. 

EARTH 671, Field Methods in Hydrogeology, is a dynamic three-week program offered by the University of Waterloo that focuses on physical and chemical applications for measuring groundwater processes. It captures both theoretical and practical components, including in-class lectures, outdoor field demonstrations, hands-on group work, and individual assignments.

“I took this course in 1989 and still remember it as a key course in my career,” said course instructor Brewster Conant. “Many students who enroll are referred by supervisors who have attended EARTH 671 in the past.”

Dr. Priyantha Kulasekera (University of Guelph) – lower right corner of photo -  instructs students on the use of the Guelph Permeameter.Dr. Priyantha Kulasekera (University of Guelph) – lower right corner of photo - instructs students on the use of the Guelph Permeameter to measure water infiltration rates and soil characteristics in the unsaturated zone (i.e., the sediments above the water table) at UW’s north campus research site.  From left to right, are Chrystyn Skinner (University of Guelph), Andrea Reman (University of Waterloo), Bruna Soldera (University of Waterloo), and Georgina Kalogerakis (University of Toronto).

With its international recognition, the course attracts students from beyond Waterloo. This year, the department saw about 40 graduate students enrolled from a variety of universities, including the University of Waterloo, University of Guelph, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Queen’s University, University of Ottawa, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and even Tübingen University in Germany.

Students are measuring the volume of water flowing in a stream (i.e., streamflow gauging) using a V-notch weir.Students (left to right) Vladyslav Rayda (University of Ottawa), Kevin Tateishi (University of Waterloo), and Iwona Widurska (University of Waterloo) are measuring the volume of water flowing in a stream using a V-notch weir and are also about to measure the amount directly by collecting the water in a modified carboy container (the white container) as a rough check of the weir’s accuracy. Students also learn to measure the streamflow using stream dilution tests and use the data to understand contributions of groundwater flow into surface water.

Through rain or shine, students progress through the course in a variety of environments across campus and the surrounding region. Wearing hip waders to navigate a local stream to measure groundwater—surface water interactions, to drilling monitoring wells in campus fields, to performing geochemical analyses of water samples in the field, no two days are the same.

“I have been teaching part of this course ever since it was taught at Chalk River, about 40 years ago,” said David R. Lee, Adjunct Professor with the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Being involved in this course is a service to future scientists and it has always been a pleasure for me to see that despite weather conditions being difficult on some of the field days, students are still engaged because they are collecting their own data and can actually see the flow of groundwater.”

By the end, students obtain a considerable amount of knowledge regarding both fundamental and innovative field techniques and gain skills necessary to move into either industry or research. They explore topics, such as well installations, soil classifications, geophysical techniques, water supply assessment, unsaturated zone flow, and water quality sampling. Afterward, they leave with knowledge on how to select appropriate measurement methods, how to install monitoring devices, and most importantly, to interpret data in a hydrogeological context.

“There are always new insights being taught because the instructors are bringing diverse perspectives from industry,” said Waterloo master’s student Andrea Reman. 

Dr. David Lee demonstrates the installation of a mini-piezometer to determine the flow of groundwater into a stream.Dr. David Lee (adjunct professor at UW) – center - demonstrates the installation of a mini-piezometer to determine the flow of groundwater into a stream as the course instructor Dr. Brewster Conant (UW) - right - (in yellow), TAs  David Wilson (in dark blue) and Pieter Aukes (in light blue) – back center right- , and other students look on. The students then proceeded to put in their own mini-piezometers to make water level measurements, determine flow directions, and perform hydraulic tests on the streambed sediments.

More than 30 professionals, including faculty members, environmental consultants and industry leaders dedicated their time and knowledge to enhance learning objectives throughout the three-week period. With Waterloo Science’s reputation in cutting-edge field research, these professionals often end up building connections with students  and creates a foundation for recruitment opportunities upon graduation. The element of experiential learning that combines both fundamental and state-of-the-art field methods with industry applications and knowledge is a large reason why those enrolled are in demand by employers.  

“Overall, I thought the course was great,” said a student in their evaluation. “I found it incredibly valuable as the majority of demonstrations and activities were completely new to me and were my first time trying them hands-on. I cannot imagine going out into the workforce without having done this course.

Students interested in taking the EARTH 671 Field Methods in Hydrogeology course can check out the academic calendar or contact course instructor, Professor Brewster Conant Jr., for more details.  

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