Water Wonders: Renovated Mirror Lake provides hydrogeology lab for students
On a crisp October day at Mirror Lake, senior Michael Madson surmises why dissolved solids in the lake have dropped in the past few months.
He discusses a few hypotheses with Audrey Sawyer, assistant professor of earth sciences. Could it be seasonal? Or manmade: The fact that the renovation of the lake is completed and construction work is no longer stirring up the lake’s sediment? Maybe it’s biological, caused by algae and plants growing in the lake. Or a more complicated possibility: The lake is currently supplied by both city water and groundwater from a limestone aquifer, and the chemistry of the lake water could be equilibrating with the atmosphere.
The installation of a new hydrogeology learning lab in and near the lake gives students like Madson the opportunity to apply classroom learning without leaving campus.
“Professors can say, ‘This is what we’ve been talking about, and it’s right in your backyard,’” says Madson, an earth sciences major.
Both Madson and Sawyer started their undergraduate studies in astrophysics; Madson also was studying geophysics. They took advantage of diverse course opportunities and eventually discovered the potential of — and their own keen interest in — earth sciences.
“I like this so much better,” Madson said before donning waders to make an adjustment to the sensor in Mirror Lake. “I can go out in the field and get my hands dirty. It’s not that I’m stuck at this desk.”
The new lab consists of monitoring stations in the lake and a groundwater well. Both are equipped with wireless sensors to monitor pressure, water level, temperature, electric conductivity, total dissolved solids and salinity.
Future hydrogeology classes, Madson says, will be able to pull up Mirror Lake’s data on computers to analyze it.
Sawyer, who developed and, with several students, installed the lab, says already two general education classes and an upper-level hydrogeology class are using her teaching materials.
“These three courses alone will expose approximately 900 students annually to hands-on skills in hydrogeology,” says Sawyer.
“In the ‘Water Issues’ general education class, we talk about water in the news and use it as a jumping off point to learn about geology,” Sawyer says, noting that the class (ES 2204) has discussed hurricanes, droughts and global groundwater contamination issues such as natural arsenic in Southeast Asia.
Sawyer’s interest in earth sciences was piqued at a high school summer program, where a professor talked about waterborne diseases.
“I thought, wow, if I want to do environmental science and make a difference,” she remembers, “I need to do water.”
Sawyer, who joined Ohio State in 2014, received funding from the National Science Foundation to study water table fluctuations and establish the hydrogeology learning lab. The well for the lab was donated by Jamison Drilling. Students use the lab to learn about the area’s aquifer and soon will install several shallow wells for monitoring the water table. Resulting data from all of the sensors will supply fodder for senior theses.
“Through the university’s ecosystem services goal, we hope to increase the opportunities for faculty and students to utilize more of campus grounds for learning labs,” says Steve Volkmann, university landscape architect.
The university’s sustainability goals, established in 2015, are designed to develop solutions to the challenges of sustainability and in evolving a culture of sustainability through collaborative teaching, pioneering research, comprehensive outreach, and innovative operations, practices and policies. Among the goals: increasing the ecosystem services that the university’s properties provide, such as stormwater control, carbon sequestration, local food growth and recreational or cultural interaction opportunities.
The hydrogeology lab also could prove beneficial for local scientists outside of Ohio State. Sawyer says the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources have inquired about using the lab to train new employees.
Sawyer sees even more potential: “Maybe we’ll discover data that could be helpful for the daily operation of Mirror Lake,” she says. “Or looking at the water table, we might be able to see changes due to the natural spring that used to be here, so we’ll have a historical perspective.”
Given the many disciplines of study available on campus, Sawyer hopes student projects at the lake also will capture the attention of students outside earth sciences.
“If they walk by and see this kind of science, and it sparks their interest in any kind of science,” she says, “that would be the reaction out of this that would be the end goal.”
Next summer, Sawyer hopes to use the Mirror Lake lab to develop a hands-on learning activity for the Ohio Supercomputer Center’s Young Women’s Summer Institute for middle-school girls in Ohio.
The lines separating environmental science, engineering and geology are blurring, says Sawyer, as scientists work in teams at the interface of these fields. She adds that in geology and hydrology, the technology revolution has been significant in recent years.
“I’m excited that we can bring this technology to students through the learning lab,” she says. “It’s a chance for students to learn the tools that environmental geologists and consultants use in the professional world.
“Geology is one of those sciences people find by accident,” Sawyer says. “It turns out it’s a super-viable career, but few people know how fun and lucrative it can be until they start digging into it — no pun intended.”
Film studies major Vincent Tricaso, who took Audrey Sawyer’s Water Issues class, made a video of the well drilling for Sawyer to use to teach earth studies students about the topic.