Battle Grove serves as a model for living-learning lab

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University Gazette, March 8, 2017

Sustainability @ UNC, Feb. 22, 2017

Geoffrey Bell and students Jun Wang and Brooke Benson tested the water in Battle BranchGeoffrey Bell wanted a way for students in his fall 2016 Restoration Ecology class to link concepts in ecosystem restoration with the practical application of research techniques they were learning. Sally Hoyt wanted to find new ways to engage students in the campus infrastructure around them.

So it was only natural that the two found a common purpose in the Battle Grove Restoration Project, which turned the once-soggy area beside McIver Residence Hall into a gentle stream that flows from Raleigh Street to Country Club Road.

The stream was created last year through a process called daylighting, where water from a Battle Branch tributary that had been piped beneath the road for 75 years was released in an aboveground stream. The new Battle Branch stream was designed with a filtration process that would naturally filter pollutants and contaminants out of runoff water, benefiting water quality downstream as well as in the immediate area.

A professor at North Carolina State University has worked with Hoyt, the University’s stormwater engineer, and her team to examine the effect of storm conditions on the stream’s water quality, but that work didn’t include monitoring Battle Branch’s base flow conditions – taken when it wasn’t raining as a way to gauge nutrient concentrations on an average day.

That’s where Bell’s class became instrumental.

“That was a gap in information we needed,” Hoyt said, “and I worked with Dr. Bell on parameters that were both useful to the project and feasible for his students to measure with the equipment that was available.”

Testing the nutrient concentration over time is important because the Battle Grove area is part of the Jordan Lake watershed, and that lake already has too many nutrients, some of which reach it through base flow conditions, Hoyt explained.

A three-student team in Bell’s class took on the base flow-monitoring project and designed their measurement and analysis methodologies to provide the information Hoyt needed. They sampled the water multiple times during the semester at four sites within Battle Branch to measure base flow concentrations of nitrate, nitrite, ammonium and phosphate in the water as well as dissolved oxygen, salinity and temperature.

Although their research didn’t yield conclusive patterns – phosphate was the only nutrient that differed significantly among the four sites – that in itself is a finding. It points to the need for additional testing at different times during the year to create a more complete picture than tests within one semester can show, the students explained in their report.The sites were selected based on varying degrees of treatment, including two places where water enters the system and a third location where water coming in from both entry points exits the system, said Brooke Benson, one of the students on the team.

The Battle Grove project was one of six community partnerships Bell’s class developed. Student teams also worked with University clients to examine ecological issues related to short-leaf pines in the North Carolina Botanical Garden, oyster restoration in conjunction with the Institute for Marine Sciences, stream monitoring on Outdoor Recreation Center land and endangered species restoration in Battle Park, as well as a project with the Town of Chapel Hill to monitor water quality for a local stream.

The class, which Bell has taught each fall for the past several years, is an APPLES service-learning class, requiring students to devote 30 hours outside of class to their assigned restoration project.

“As I developed the course, I saw an opportunity to bring both the service component and a practical application of research into the classroom because there was so much restoration work going on around campus,” said Bell, senior lecturer in the Curriculum in Environment and Ecology.

Bell focuses not only on teaching his students key concepts in restoring ecosystems, but also the research skills they need to design experiments, think critically and test hypotheses, and analyze their data.

“The biggest benefit for the students is that they can take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to a real issue,” he said. In the process, they’re learning how to manage projects and meet clients’ needs while giving back to the community.

In the Battle Grove project, for example, Hoyt showed the student team around the site and provided parameters for the information she needed, and the students took it from there. They determined the specifics of the study design and analysis.

“Projects like this are critically important to being good stewards of our environment,” said Benson, who is majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in ecology and society. “Nature has done a good job of taking care of itself, and we have to pay attention to the effects of pollution and urbanization on our natural systems.”

Bell’s class is a model for using the campus as a living-learning laboratory, as Chancellor Carol L. Folt has championed as part of the new Three Zeros Initiative. On March 24, Bell will be part of a Center for Faculty Excellence-sponsored panel to discuss innovative ways to integrate research and service into a living-labs classroom.

And his students’ work has laid the foundation for further assessment.

This semester, Stephanie Monmoine will take additional water samples from the Battle Branch stream, and she will create a time-lapse photo vignette of the area to show how the site has changed in terms of vegetation, animal habitats and other factors.

Monmoine, an intern with the Sustainable Triangle Field Site Program, is also focusing on education and outreach efforts.

“As students, many of us don’t consider how much planning goes into taking care of our campus,” she said. “I have a chance to see some of what happens behind the curtain to make our University run smoothly.”

Launched in fall 2016, the Three Zeros initiative is Carolina’s integrated approach to reducing its environmental footprint through three sustainability goals: net zero water usage; zero waste to landfills; and net zero greenhouse gas emissions. A central component to the initiative is to create a living-learning laboratory for students, faculty and staff to study and advance the most recent developments in sustainability policy and technology.