Earth and Environmental Sciences celebrates 50 pioneering years

Monday, September 28, 2015

Earth and Environmental Sciences celebrates 50 pioneering yearsOver its fifty-year history, Earth Science faculty have earned an international reputation as pioneers in contaminant hydrogeology and leaders in outreach through their award-winning Earth Sciences Museum.

Earth Sciences has achieved a superb reputation that extends far beyond Waterloo Region,” says William Taylor, Department Chair and Distinguished Professor Emeritus. “It’s an incredible story that continues today.”

Robert Farvolden: Bringing a vision to life

The Department of Earth Sciences was established on July 1, 1965. The first students in the new three-year General Earth Sciences program began classes in September 1965.

The department remained small until the founders, including then Chair Paul Karrow, decided to specialise in environmental geology and hired Robert Farvolden as the new Department Chair in 1970.

Today, much to the credit of the department’s diverse faculty, the department offers a broad array of Earth sciences courses, covering topics from classic geology to ecology and water management. The Science 2+2 Undergraduate Collaborative Education Program with China, headed by geologist Shoufa Lin, has brought in more than 200 students from some the best universities across China.

To reflect the changing curriculum and student population, the department changed its name to Earth and Environmental Sciences in 2008.

A field experiment like no other: Base Borden, Ontario

Groundwater contamination was not recognized as a serious problem until the 1970s. An experimental site at the Canadian Forces Base in Borden, Ontario, established by University of Waterloo hydrogeologists, led to the development of new remediation technologies like the permeable reactive barrier, used worldwide today, and the refinement of policy concepts like groundwater wellhead protection areas (WHPA).

By the mid-1990s, the members of the Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research had 72 patents and were second only to the United States Geological Survey in terms of number of academic citations. Four of the ten University of Waterloo faculty ever named as Thomson-Reuters Most Highly Cited Researchers are from Earth and Environmental Sciences.

The University of Waterloo was also known through the popular textbook Groundwater by R. Allan Freeze (University of British Columbia) and John Cherry, one of the most widely referenced hydrology textbooks across Canada and the US.

Earth Sciences Museum

Conceived as a Canada centennial project, the University of Waterloo Earth Sciences Museum was opened in 1968 as the Biology−Earth Sciences Museum. The museum changed its name and mission to focus on Earth sciences in 1994.

Today, the Earth Sciences Museum welcomes nearly 80,000 visitors annually, mainly children, through its extended outreach program with local schools.

The museum’s current home in the Centre for Environmental and Information Technology incorporates exhibits into nearly every corner of the structure, including the CEIT Café. Part of the museum’s collection can even be found outside in the Peter Russell Rock Garden, which has grown to over 70 specimens.

The museum continues to welcome new displays like Mastodon: Life, Death and Discovery, an augmented reality experience added last year in honour of the Department’s 50th anniversary, as well as the next generation of three-dimensional, augmented reality exhibits.

A diamond-studded future

Today, the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences remains a powerhouse of research and discovery.

Earth Sciences are at the centre of today’s great debates about climate change and human impacts on the environment and our planet’s finite resources,” says Canada Excellence Research Chair Philippe Van Cappellen. “In today’s world, we, as humans, have become the dominant geological force. These are exciting times for Earth scientists to use their knowledge of the past to plan for a better future."

Earth faculty actively participate in UW’s Water Institute as well as multi-sector partnerships hosted at University of Waterloo like the Southern Ontario Water Consortium and the Canadian Water Network. Nationally-funded initiatives like TERRE-CREATE training in sustainable mining are establishing new fields and attracting students from across the country.

Recent national and international media coverage has also included stories featuring research from professors Sherry Schiff, John Spoelstra, Hans Dürr, Maurice Dusseault, and Steve Evans. More research news can be found on the Earth and Environmental Sciences news page.

Please join the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in marking its 50th Anniversary this fall by attending the commemorative Farvolden Lecture featuring Professor David Rudolph and celebratory dinner on Friday, October 30, 2015.