On the outskirts of Blacksburg, beside a headwater creek in a forested watershed that runs into Tom’s Creek, a new hydrological monitoring station has started transmitting data.

This station, the realization of a project started by J.P. Gannon, collegiate assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, allows students to monitor water outputs in an effort to assess how trail and park development affects water quality. It will also serve as a field resource for future Virginia Tech students to study water dynamics and environmental science close to campus.

“This is a good opportunity for the town of Blacksburg and the university to cooperate on something that is beneficial to everyone,” said Gannon, who teaches in the emerging field of environmental informatics in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “We benefit from having a nearby site where we can conduct research and help train students. For the town, they’re keenly interested in how trail development is going to affect water quality in a watershed that drains into Tom’s Creek.”

The monitoring station is located on the south-facing slope of Brush Mountain, on property recently purchased to increase outdoor educational and recreational opportunities for residents by expanding the network of hiking and cycling trails currently accessed at Blacksburg’s Gateway Park.

Since the start of the project early in the semester, three students have participated in most aspects of the station’s construction, from calibrating the instrumentation in the laboratory on campus, to testing the station’s capacity to transmit data, to choosing a field site that would be appropriate for the students’ individual research projects.

“I think the time that my research partners and I were tasked with calibrating the water monitoring sensor in the lab was the moment I’ll remember the most,” said Marley Gilliam, a junior majoring in environmental informatics. “I had never worked in a lab like that so independently, problem-solving with my fellow students.”

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the students were unable to complete the final step of placing field sensors that communicate hydrology data to the water station, which was instead completed by Gannon.

“Fortunately, the students were able to get the sensors up and running in the lab before spring break,” Gannon noted. “The sensors are now installed at the site, and the station is streaming data. Our students have adjusted their project goals for the semester to fit the information we’re bringing in.”

A young man leans over, holding a sensor, which connected to a long cord, in a large blue bucket. Two young women and one man stand nearby, watching him.
In February, Scott Braatz, right, tested one of the sensors in a bucket of water while, left to right, J.P. Gannon, Kelly Crum, and Marley Gilliam observed.

The station is currently monitoring the amount of water coming through the creek as well as its temperature, turbidity (the relative clarity of the water), and conductivity, which is a measure of how well the water conducts electricity.

“Every member of our team has a different research question pertaining to the same stream,” explained Kelly Crum, a sophomore majoring in water: resources, policy, and management. “This experience has really opened my eyes to the different possibilities in water resources research.”

Crum is studying water flow dynamics to understand how water levels relate to landscape characteristics. Gilliam is researching relic coal mines in the area, attempting to remotely locate spoil piles from these smaller mines to see if water chemistry is impacted by remnant coal. And Scott Braatz, a sophomore majoring in environmental informatics, is examining the impact of trail building on water quality.

This project is funded by Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate Research Faculty Grant Program, which aims to increase opportunities for undergraduates. The three students had been working on the station this spring, and the station will be utilized to provide future undergraduates with field research experiences that cannot be replicated in the classroom.

“Course-based undergraduate research experiences are shown to be tremendously impactful in education,” Gannon said, “so I try to create as many of those opportunities as possible. Having a field site that is close to campus will allow me to use it for course-based undergraduate research, which will involve getting 30 to 40 students all participating on a research question.”

Gannon notes that having field experiences built into a course schedule is crucial in reducing barriers for student participation, allowing all students to gain practical skills in the field.

“Because our students don’t have to opt in, because they don’t have to apply or otherwise put themselves out there to get the experience, we’re removing barriers for participation, particularly for underrepresented groups,” Gannon noted. “It’s a really important aspect of doing course-based research.”

The monitoring station is located on one of two parcels purchased by the New River Land Trust, which plans to transfer the entire 552 acres to the town of Blacksburg for dedication as a park. Gannon hopes that this transfer will allow for more course-based research to take place on Brush Mountain in the future.

Written by David Fleming

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