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Salting the Earth: Science and Humanities Students Study Soil and Water Quality Together

Salting the Earth: Science and Humanities Students Study Soil and Water Quality Together
Dr. Sydney Duncan, left, watches as Aaron Littlejohn ’13 captures soil moisture data at one of the campus test sites. Mike Schoelen, who used the same equipment in a later internship, is standing next to her.

(From Profile Magazine)

Dr. Phillip Allen and Dr. Sydney Duncan share two passions – creating a sustainable future and providing their students with high-quality learning opportunities by applying the theoretical knowledge they present in the classroom to real-world practical situations.

Together they have created a well-developed interdisciplinary project from an experiment to determine the impact on the campus environment from the use of standard pavement deicers, commonly called road salt. Joining elements from a soils class in the Department of Geography with a technical writing class in the Department of English, they construct a single, collaborative project each semester that over time is looking more deeply into road salt’s long-term environmental impact – and transforming their students’ mindset in the process.

“There’s a connectivity created with the project and the data. It shows the importance of the sciences and the humanities working together,” Duncan said. “When the research is put into a logical progression, it helps the students understand the power of language.”

Duncan, who had been casting about for ideas to better integrate the principles she taught in her technical writing course with real-world experiences, attended Allen’s presentation in 2011 on the initial project, called the Silent Killer Project, at Focus Frostburg, the campus’ annual teach-in about sustainability and the environment. She had been hoping to get her technical writing students involved in a hands-on project that also had a basis in sustainability, and this seemed tailor-made.

They established the FSU Soil Monitoring Project, which has involved about 120 students over the course of two years, with a slightly different focus each year as they build on the previous year’s research.

In the original project, students installed field equipment and moisture sensors, then monitored soil and weather conditions over a nine-week period. The end result was a comprehensive written report recording soil moisture characteristics on campus.

The project has evolved to include a larger “laboratory,” Sand Spring Run, the stream that flows through campus. The Sand Spring watershed includes residential and commercial properties, forests, surface mining operations and agriculture – and all of Frostburg State University, and that water ultimately flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The student groups work for nine weeks monitoring soil sensors at four locations on campus and conductivity sensors at four locations in Sand Spring Run. The data generated by these sensors is entered into a shared database. The students work together to place the sensors, monitor and record their readings and finally interpret the data into a consultancy report. Allen serves as the client, which includes reporting and writing style specifications typical of the requirements found in the geoscience industry.

“It’s exciting to see the group work it out among themselves, everyone working in collaboration,” Duncan said. “You can see them click with it. They write amazing things.”

The section of the Sand Spring Run studied has allowed them to determine if the deicers used on campus are impacting its water quality.

“It’s a real chance to see how much of an impact we’re having as humans,” Allen said. “It’s a legacy issue.” The impact of road salt is apparent in corrosion at the bottoms of doors and dead grass near sidewalks, but this study is also looking at changes in water and soils as a result of the salt running off the surfaces it is applied to, and how much remains from year to year.

“Some 500 to 1,000 tons of salt a year are used on campus, and during the spring melt and possibly some summer storms, the salt is washed into Sand Spring Run,” Allen said. This study is the beginnings of understanding what kind of impact that runoff may be having at local and regional scales.

Student Transformation

Allen and Duncan are excited about the transformation they have seen in their students.

“They get their hands dirty and move outside their comfort zone,” Allen said. They have seen students develop a passionate interest in the subject, leading some to change their majors and career paths and achieve impressive accomplishments following the class.

Jade Schramm was a biology major when she took Duncan’s technical writing class in the fall of 2012. Schramm’s passion is to analyze the impact that humans have on the environment.

When Allen came to the class to present his charge to them, “I was very taken by him and his project. The study was exactly what I had been expecting my classes to be like.” It was not long before she joined the Department of Geography to major in environmental science with Allen as her adviser.

Schramm has been interning with the U.S. Geological Survey since February, where she is constantly in the field learning all that she can about water quality and surface water measurements.

“This study really allowed for the opportunity to observe and record actual data that links the effects of salt to soil moisture levels,” Schramm said. “It demonstrates an immediate connection between humans and their environment.”

Mike Schoelen took both courses simultaneously, allowing him to nurture his skills as a scientist and a writer at the same time. He had no idea how important the skills he was learning would be until he started his internship this summer with ECS Mid-Atlantic, a geotechnical engineering firm in Frederick, Md.

“Walking in that room was like being home,” Schoelen said of his first day in the firm’s soils lab. “I saw testing equipment that I had used for two years in the Department of Geography. On the walls there were notes of formulas that I had written a hundred times in my own notebooks in class. While all of the other interns were scrambling to take in all of the information being thrown at them, I was already prepared.” Schoelen was one of a group of students who presented initial results at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Three other graduates from the project, Samantha Cooper ’12, Christyna McCormick ’13 and Jessica Elder, presented a very well-received poster at the conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which discussed ways that FSU has integrated sustainability into the curriculum using these cross-curricular assignments.

Andrew Hathaway ’13 was so enthusiastic about the project that he developed his own campus soil survey study for his Earth Science senior project. This project lasted an entire academic year and, according to Allen, produced a superb undergraduate dissertation. The quality of Hathaway’s work was of such quality that he successfully presented a poster at the Northeastern Section Meeting of the Geological Society of America in March.

“It is amazing to think of our students representing FSU at international conferences,” Allen said.

The Project Continues

Since the project began, it has been supported through grants from the Presidential Experiential Learning Enhancement Fund and Opportunity Grants supported by the FSU Foundation’s Annual Fund. One of the most tangible benefits from the Opportunity Grants came with the replacement of 40-year-old equipment used to collect the data from the soil sensors.

The project will continue, building on what is learned each year. Allen and Duncan also hope to quantify the change in perspective they have seen in their students, especially the increased interest in sustainability.

“We want them to start thinking about the long-term impact of what we do today,” Duncan said. 

Web Address for More Information:

For further information on this release, contact:

Office of News and Media Services
Frostburg State University
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Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

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