Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011

Peat Bogs of Allegan County: A Field-Based Research Project Involving College and High School Students

By Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman, Hope College Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences

Project Goals

The Hope College REACH (Research Experience Across Cultures) program is a 6-week summer research program in which local high school students and teachers in West Michigan research alongside college students and professors in the college's Natural and Applied Sciences (NAS) Division on timely and relevant scientific problems.
The goals of the REACH program are to:
  1. expose local high school students and teachers to the opportunities and excitement of scientific research,
  2. provide scientific experience to high school students in the hope that they will pursue a career in the mathematical and/or natural sciences,
  3. provide underrepresented groups the opportunity to do scientific research in the hope of increasing diversity within the college community and these fields of study, and
  4. improve communication and education relationships between Hope College and the area high school communities.

During the summer of 2010, a pilot REACH II team-based research project to survey the bogs of Allegan County was undertaken. Our ultimate research goal was to use paleoenvironmental indicators in the Allegan peat bogs to develop a climate history of the lower Great Lakes region since deglaciation occurred approximately 13,000 years ago. Our first step was a county-wide reconnaissance of the stratigraphy and geologic history of the Allegan County peat bogs. It was this study that was performed by the REACH II team.

Project Design and Implementation

The Reach II peat bog team consisted of:

  1. Suzanne DeVries-Zimmerman and Ed Hansen from the Hope College Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences
  2. One Hope College undergraduate science education student
  3. A local high school teacher
  4. Four students from local high schools


Locating a Sampling Site

Potential bogs for coring were located using Google Earth and the Surficial Geology of Allegan County map (Gephart and Larson, 1982). These bogs were then visited to determine their suitability for coring, with raised bogs being preferred for coring sites.

Field Work: Core Extraction

Sediment core samples from four different bogs in Allegan County were collected from locations across the bog using both a Russian peat corer and a Livingstone sampler. Cores were collected in one meter intervals from the surface down to the lowermost, underlying sand layer. Typically cores were collected at four sites in each bog along a traverse from one edge to the center. The extracted cores were measured, initially described for sediment type, thickness and color of each layer, wrapped, and brought back to the lab for analysis. This completed the field portion of the study which occupied roughly 1/3 of the 6 week project.

Laboratory Sample Analysis

In the laboratory, smear slides were made every fifteen centimeters along each core. Percentages of selected components, including clastic components (quartz, K-feldspar, and plagioclase), authigenic components (carbonates), biogenic components (pennatae and centricae diatoms and sponge spicules), organic matter (plant fragments), and aquatic amorphous organic matter, were estimated. Each student worked individually, but in the same room, so that they could consult with each other and with the faculty mentors. Data from the smear slide descriptions were used to graph the relative amounts of biogenic, clastic, and authigenic components, relative amounts of plant fibers, diatoms, and sponge spicules, and the relative amounts of centric and pennate diatoms with respect to depth. These graphs, along with the initial core descriptions, were used to determine the layers used in the stratigraphy analysis.

Near the conclusion of the 6-week period, each of the four bogs was assigned to a different student. The student reviewed the smear slide analyses for his or her bog, drew a stratigraphic cross-section and developed a geologic history from this information. Each participant then prepared a poster summarizing their research and presented it as part of the final REACH research celebration.


The results of this research have also been presented at both state and national meetings, the Michigan Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting and the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, respectively. In addition, the findings of this research have provided the basis for additional paleoenvironmental studies on these bogs. Specifically, a detailed plant macrofossil study was performed during the summer of 2011 on two peat bogs in Allegan County based on the survey performed by the REACH II team.

In addition, a comparison of the pre- and post-program assessment surveys indicated that the REACH bog program significantly increased participant confidence in such areas as understanding the overall research process and dealing with frustrations in it, understanding research design and methodology, interpreting research results, and understanding how research can lead to new knowledge. Lastly, participants stated that their REACH experience helped to narrow down what they would like to do in science, made them more confident for next year's classes, opened up new fields of interest, and gave ideas of what to look for in their college search.

Lessons Learned

This project involved significant amounts of both field and laboratory work. Students learned firsthand the problems of field work (difficult field conditions, clouds of mosquitoes, perfecting sampling techniques, etc.), and yet this field time was integral in creating cohesiveness within the group. One student commented that, "The field work was so much fun. We bonded so well in the field it made the lab work even more fun." Another stated, "I hadn't thought of going to a bog as part of research. But that time in the field was what helped our group bond and work together so well." Besides teamwork, other valuable aspects of the REACH program cited by participants included learning to use instruments, being able to read scientific papers, and developing a work ethic.