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Creating a Water Table Map for Newark Road Prairie

Sue Swanson
Beloit College
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jun 27, 2005


This field exercise emphasizes visualization of the water table over construction of a water table map. Students develop a water table map from scratch, including installing shallow monitoring wells, surveying wells, measuring water levels, and drafting a professional map using ArcGIS. The exercise promotes a deeper level of understanding prior to the introduction of more advanced topics, and takes surprisingly little time once a field site is established.

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Undergraduate hydrogeology course designed for geology majors. Some environmental biology and environmental studies majors also take the course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be familiar with the concept of hydraulic head and contouring techniques. I have used the exercise during the first 1/3 of the course (after introducing water budgets, aquifer properties, hydraulic head, and Darcy's Law), but I actually prefer doing the exercise later in the course to revisit and reinforce fundamental concepts learned earlier in the term. Although the exercise makes use of ArcGIS software, students do not need to be familiar with GIS because detailed instructions for using the software are provided.

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise takes two 3-hour laboratory periods and up to one 50-minute class period.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Hydraulic head, capillary fringe, water table, gaining and losing streams, well construction, surveying techniques.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Relating physical measurements to a two-dimensional representation of the water table surface, recognizing and evaluating errors in field measurements.

Other skills goals for this activity

Field techniques, working in groups, simple mathematical calculations, contouring, map design, data presentation and construction of tables.

Description of the activity/assignment

Because many students are familiar with contouring methods, they can mechanically construct water table maps from canned data sets with ease. However, their contouring abilities may mask their level of understanding. This field exercise aims to instill a deeper understanding of the nature of a water table surface as students also learn fundamental hydrogeological field techniques.

The exercise is based at Newark Road Prairie, which is owned and managed by Beloit College and located approximately five miles from campus. The property contains native prairie, wetlands, and a small stream. Although many schools may not own similar types of properties, land managers are often willing to allow the installation of shallow wells on public lands (e.g., county parks, state wildlife areas). Seven shallow monitoring wells and four staff gages are currently installed at Newark Road Prairie.

When we arrive at the field site, we begin by making observations on the subtle changes in topography and the direction of stream flow. Although we have just carried in all of the field equipment, I ask what type of information we will need to create a water table map. Handouts for the exercise are distributed after this discussion (see Supplementary Materials below).

Students are divided into groups of three for the field portion of the exercise, although each student ultimately drafts their own map using group and class data. Each group gets an electronic water level meter, a GPS unit, and a measuring tape, and we discuss the magnitude of error incorporated into the measurements taken by each of the instruments. We then review basic operation procedures for the water level meters and the GPS units, and students confirm that their GPS units are using the correct coordinate system and datum (UTM, NAD83).

We discuss surveying techniques as a class, and supplemental instructions are also provided in the handout (see Supplementary Materials below). We establish a centrally-located, bench mark (usually one of the staff gages) from which the students survey the wells and other staff gages. Each group is responsible for surveying at least two wells or staff gages. Groups distribute their surveying results to the rest of the class when we return to campus. Each group checks their results in the field, which reduces the chance of propagating surveying errors throughout the class.

Groups need to take water level measurements, survey wells, and record GPS coordinates for each well and staff gage. Additionally, because Newark Road Prairie has an established grid system with posts and markers at ten meter intervals, students measure the distance of each well/staff gage from at least three markers in order to evaluate the accuracy of their GPS measurements. Groups rotate the surveying equipment and are responsible for collecting all of the necessary data within the two lab periods. Two three-hour lab periods provide ample time for each group to collect the necessary data sets, including the time required to load/unload equipment and drive to/from the site. One 50-minute class period is provided for distributing survey results, compiling and printing base maps using ArcGIS, and contouring the water table maps.

Determining whether students have met the goals

I evaluate this exercise informally in the field as students are surveying well locations and taking field measurements. The formal evaluation occurs when I grade the final water table maps. I focus on the interpretation and configuration of the water table in relation to the stream that flows through the site, the overall map composition, and the organization and presentation of field data.

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