Non-traditional and under-represented students in hydrogeology: Learning by discovery in an urban environment

Laura Rademacher
California State University, Los Angeles
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An example of student-driven, instructor-guided field experiments on a budget. Schools that cater to under-represented students are often those with limited resources, however, student-driven discovery in the field is an effective tool for engaging students in the natural environment and in hydrogeology. Effective strategies for addressing the special needs of urban students are essential for successful implementation of a field-based learning experience.

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undergraduate elective/graduate student required and elective courses in hydrogeology, watershed analysis, and special topics courses

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

pH, conductivity, discharge, nutrients, flux, steady state, water budget

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is a quarter-long project for students. It is supported by in-class activities where the students develop hypotheses and analyze data.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The students should understand the cycling of nutrients, the origin of water quality, and the impacts of land use and urbanization on hydrologic systems. They will closely examine the data collected and re-evaluate prior hypotheses.

The overarching goals for the project: At the end of this exercise, students will be able to work in groups to design and execute a study (including hypothesis forming, data collection, analysis, and synthesis) of a hydrologic problem and then re-evaluate old hypotheses in light of these new data.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

hypothesis writing, analysis of data, synthesis of ideas

Other skills goals for this activity

use simple analytical equipment quantitative skills, working in groups, presentation skills

Description of the activity/assignment


In my experience, I have discovered many common roadblocks to non-traditional and under-represented student participation in hydrogeology:
  • Time constraints—many students have complicated schedules and demands on their time that a traditional undergraduate does not have. For example, many of these students are working full time, and required experiences outside of the classroom often pose scheduling conflicts for students.
  • Communication skills—many under-represented students arrive in the classroom with communication skills that are not fully developed. Students are often learning English as they are learning the complex vocabulary of hydrogeology.
  • Math skills—many students are under prepared in math and/or have math phobias
  • Funding—many students are unable to pay laboratory and field trip fees.

I currently teach at minority serving institution. Here, I find that hands-on practice is the most successful learning experience for students. Students grasp concepts such as discharge, flux, and residence time more effectively when they are active participants in the learning process. The most effective method I have found for addressing these issues and encouraging under represented student participation in hydrogeology is to create student-designed group research projects. I used this strategy three quarters in a row, and the same students (as well as new students they recruit) continue to sign up for these courses. This trend, in addition to students' growing confidence in engaging in the scientific method, is my primary evidence for success.

Resources are very limited at my institution, so here are a couple of suggestions that work well.

  • Borrow equipment—from other universities, from consulting companies, from colleagues.
  • Simplify analyses—many interesting conclusions can be drawn from simply pH, conductivity, and temperature data. But, there are also relatively inexpensive test kits on the market that are sufficient for class purposes (ex. LaMotte urban water test kit ~$30).


Everyone will have different class sizes, student preparation levels, and goals when attempting an exercise like this, so I will provide general information, which others can modify to meet their needs. Below I briefly outline the steps I take the students through during the project and highlight ideas for improving success for the targeted groups.

  1. Form groups—depending on class size, 2-4 students per group (I try to ensure the groups are balanced based on skills and student interests)
  2. Choose topic—I usually provide a list of possible topics and have students adapt a topic from the list that interests them. Students require a lot of guidance at this stage to assure selection of a manageable topic for a quarter-long project. This is the most important step - guiding students into a topic they are passionate about and where they can be successful is key. Students usually have no shortage of questions they want to answer about water in an urban environment! Since most of the students have spent their whole lives in an urban situation, they are deeply passionate about these issues.
  3. Research literature—students perform a background search for previous work on their topic to help guide them. I provide a laboratory session on how to search the library and databases for related information, as well as provide a list of recommended journals and websites. In addition, students locate supporting data (discharge, well levels, precipitation)
  4. Plan study—we discuss study design, sample types, sampling location, frequency. During this phase, students use maps, study weather patterns, and determine site accessibility.
  5. Collect data—we set aside lab periods for collecting data together. These are the sessions where you should be prepared to answer all sort of questions. Once the students begin implementing their study, many new questions come up.
  6. Analyze and interpret results—multiple lab periods are used to analyze data; student data are the basis of the remainder of labs. Techniques discussed are applied to their group projects.
  7. Present findings—students assemble posters and present results to their classmates.

Urban topics

Below is a short list of topics to stimulate ideas. Equipment required includes pH meter, conductivity meter, flow meter, Lamotte test kits.
  • Sources of N and P to the Los Angeles River
  • Contribution of golf courses to urban runoff
  • Extent of tidal influence on Ballona Creek
  • Metal fluxes from storm drains to the ocean
  • Relationship of land use to water quality
  • Relationship of population demographics to water quality

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are evaluated through field and laboratory discussions and participation, as well asn through their final poster presentations. The final poster is the opportunity for the students to highlight their skills to their classmates, convey their findings, and successfully answer questions regarding their hypothesis, methods, and interpretations.

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