Undergraduate Research > Upper Division Strategies Collection > Undergraduate Research Across the Curriculum > Case Studies > Drinking Water Quality: An Interdisciplinary Research Experience of Introductory Geology and Chemistry Classes

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This page first made public: Dec 1, 2011

Drinking Water Quality: An Interdisciplinary Research Experience of Introductory Geology and Chemistry Classes

Robert Shuster, University of Nebraska at Omaha


Geology student making water presentation to Chemistry class
At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, we have involved students in introductory Geology and Chemistry classes in an interdisciplinary study of drinking water quality. The goals of this project are to introduce the students to the scientific method, get them to actually "do" relevant science, and show how science affects their lives. We have also used this exercise to help some students overcome their fear of science by allowing them to actively learn science, rather than absorb it in a passive fashion.



These courses are mainly populated by first or second year students. There is typically a significant population (average 15%) of pre-service elementary and secondary level teacher education majors who take the introductory Geology classes. The majority of students in these courses are non-majors, taking the course to fulfill a natural science requirement. Interestingly, we have been able to attract majors with this exercise. The Chemistry course serves mainly pre-health students, engineering majors, and other STEM area majors.

Class Size

More than 50 students

How the Activity is Situated in the Course

This activity is part of the Geology courses, with at least one class time (two is better) dedicated to discussion of the project. It is usually scheduled to occur when we are discussing water topics in the Geology courses. For the Chemistry course, it comprises one of the labs, specifically the one on ion chromatography and capillary electrophoresis.



This exercise involves students from two different departments to work together on a research project, a study of drinking water quality in the Omaha area. Students from an introductory Geology course collect drinking water samples from around the Omaha area. They collect multiple samples if their homes have water softening systems, water filtration systems, or from the same source, to serve as a replicate analysis. Samples of well water are also collected to compare to the municipal water. These samples are taken to the Chemistry class, where students analyze the samples using ion chromatography in one of their labs. The results of these analyses are sent in spread-sheet form to the Geology class, who analyzes the results. Questions asked are: What is the effect of water-softening on water composition?; What is the effect of filtering on water quality?; Is there any geographic control on the composition of the drinking water?; and What is the difference between municipal water and well water? These questions lead to the discussion of how water-softeners work (zeolites) and filtering systems work, what geologic factors control the composition of drinking water, and why there might be a variation geographically in Omaha in drinking water composition. The class is divided up into teams to discuss one of these topics. A volunteer then presents the results to the rest of the class and then a discussion ensues.

Finally, volunteer teams from Geology and Chemistry develop presentations to deliver to the other classes. The Chemistry presentation involves ion chromatography, analytical methods, and analytical error. The Geology student presentation involves the analysis of the data.
Work accomplished in this interdisciplinary study was the basis of a successful grant proposal written to the National Science Foundation for an ICP-MS.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations


Teaching Materials


Richter-Egger, Dana L., Hagen, James P., Laquer, Frederic C., Grandgenett, Neal F., and Shuster, Robert
D., 2010, Improving student attitudes about science by integrating research into the Introductory Chemistry Laboratory: interdisciplinary drinking water analysis: Journal of Chemical Education,
v. 87 (8), pp 862-868.

Shuster, Robert D., Hagen, James P., Laquer, Fredric C., and Richter-Egger, Dana L., 2004, Learning science by doing science: Research inquiries in introductory science: 10th National Conference, Council on Undergraduate Research, Workshop and Poster Abstracts, p. 38.

Shuster, Robert D., and Richter-Egger, Dana, 2007, Early undergraduate research in introductory geology and chemistry classes, Geol. Society of America, Abstracts with Programs, v. 39, no. 6, p. 247.

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