Using Urban Hydrology Issues To Engage Earth Science Students and Provide Community Service

John B. Ritter, Wittenberg University
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: March 9, 2016


Students in geomorphology or watershed hydrology courses or internships participate in one or more service-learning activities, varying in time and commitment from a single lab to a semester-long project. These activities rely on community-based problems or needs, identified by the instructor or stakeholder, that would require or benefit from expertise in hydrology or stream geomorphology. Previous or current activities have included a downstream assessment of QHEI prior to and following lowhead dam modification, quantification of ecosystem services provided by an urban wetland, evaluation of the hydrology of a potential wetland mitigation bank, estimation of stormwater reduction of urban rain gardens, and hydrogeologic evaluation of a fen wetland. The applications of course content to community problems or issues provide students with practical experience, potential internship positions, opportunities to deploy equipment or use instrumentation used by practicing hydrologists, real-world data to analyze, and a forum for presentation.

Keywords: urban hydrology, stream, wetland, community-based, problem-solving, service learning

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals
The following learning goals are part of my Watershed Hydrology course:

  1. To analyze local hydrologic data and evaluate it within the context of "textbook" readings and cases.
  2. To use tools of the hydrologic and hydrogeologic profession in the collection and analysis of data, in computation and modeling, and in presentation relative to the problems an environmental geologist might address in his or her career.
  3. To reflect on and articulate the relevance and application of your work to the community and its water-related problems and issues.

Higher order thinking skills goals
Create field sampling schemes, collect and analyze data, formulate hypotheses, synthesize ideas, critical thinking, visualization and creating effective graphics.

Other skills goals
Group work, effective, professional writing, poster presentation.

Context for Use

Type and level of course
The opportunities afforded by work like this allow it to be used in classes ranging from introductory physical and environmental geology courses to independent research by seniors in geology and environmental science. The community-based, problem-solving activities that involve service learning are most appropriate to mid- and upper-level geology courses, here, process geomorphology and watershed hydrology.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
Basic hydrology concepts (e.g., water balance, stream discharge, groundwater flow) are required but can be learned in preparation for the activity. Skills such as the use of instrumentation (e.g., use of Sontek Flowtracker to measure discharge, installing a monitoring well, deploying a levelogger, mapping sample sites into a GIS) or methods associated with data analysis are taught in prior labs or just-in-time.

How the activity is situated in the course
Activities are stand alone lab experiences (e.g., measurement of stream discharge to verify or add to a stage-discharge rating curve or a ring infiltration test, measurement of ground water level), as sequences, or as culminating projects. This needs to be flexible, to fit the problem, circumstances (e.g., flooding or seasonal rainfall), and student ability.

Description and Teaching Materials

The materials are course/problem dependent as they depend on the specific problem on which a class is working. These change with each iteration of the classes. A presentation available at the following link illustrates some of the problems addressed in courses, independent research, and internships:
What "Active and Engaged" Looks Like Prezi

Teaching Notes and Tips

Our hydrologic work is primarily done in conjunction or partnership with five organizations, all with an inherent interest in local streams and riparian corridors: Springfield Conservancy District, Clark Soil and Water Conservation District, Friends of Buck Creek, City of Springfield Stormwater Utility, and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce Open and Green Space Subcommittee. The work we do is no different than what a professional hydrologist might do. It changes as the problem or need changes, but it must center around faculty interest and expertise to be sustainable. It creates relationships between faculty and our community that are critical for developing new problems, gaining access to private or being able to work on public property, and in some cases acquiring funding for critical instrumentation.


Projects culminate in a poster presentation, either in a campus event or a stakeholder meeting. The work is evaluated using the AACU Problem Solving VALUE Rubric.

References and Resources

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