Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013

Undergraduate research students investigate dune processes and change at a Lake Michigan site (Case study from 2007-2008 field season)

Deanna van Dijk, Department of Geology, Geography and Environmental Studies, Calvin College

Overview of the Project

Undergraduate research students working with Deanna van Dijk, a physical geographer and faculty member at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), have been monitoring coastal dune processes, variables and changes at a Lake Michigan site from 2000 through the present. To date, 14 undergraduate research students have participated in this research project in summer and academic-year research positions. This case study describes the work of three undergraduate research students who participated from October 2007 through May 2008: Brent Geurink, Luke Pettinga, and Jon Schmitkons. The students participated in setting up and taking down research equipment, making weekly field measurements, data entry, data analysis, and presenting results at a professional conference.

Project Goals/Vision

This research project includes goals for research and for student learning.

The research project will:

  • Monitor coastal dune changes to a foredune and small blowout on a dune ridge in P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, Michigan.
  • Measure the variables that influence coastal dune changes, including wind and other microclimate variables, beach width, and changing surface conditions (moisture, ground-freezing, snow cover).
  • Use the collected data to investigate the patterns of erosion, deposition, and coastal dune change in the study area.
  • Use the collected data to investigate the relationships between variables and dune changes.

The undergraduate research students will:

  • Experience authentic research.
  • Engage in as many aspects of the research process as are possible within the project framework.
  • Develop their research skills to move from supervised field data collection to independent fieldwork and engagement in research direction.
  • Learn about the nature of science and their own vocational choices with respect to future research.

Project Design and Implementation

  • In September 2007, the research positions were advertised; Brent, Luke and Jon applied and were hired.
  • Working with their faculty supervisor, the research students set up erosion pins, sand traps, and a wind instrument tower at the study area in October.
  • From October through April 2008, the researchers (usually in pairs) made weekly site visits to measure erosion/deposition at the erosion pins, collect sand trap data, document surface conditions (such as moisture content or snow cover), and download microclimate data.
  • In October and April, the full research team made site visits to survey (with a total station) the topography and sampling locations of the study area.
  • The researchers supported the fieldwork with on-campus research activities such as preparing equipment for site visits, drying and weighing collected sand after returning from the field, entering collected field data into Excel and mapping survey data.
  • The research students were encouraged to choose one element of the field data collection for analysis and possible presentation at a local professional conference. One of the three students decided to focus on using GIS to map the patterns of change measured at the site erosion pins. After considering their schedules, a second student decided to participate in a limited role, and the third student decided that time constraints did not permit involvement.
  • In March 2008, Jon Schmitkons presented results at the Michigan Academy of Arts and Sciences meeting at Western Michigan University (with one student and two faculty members as coauthors).


  • During the 2007-2008 academic year, three undergraduate students had authentic research experiences during a field research investigation of coastal dune changes and variables at a Lake Michigan study area.
  • Although the students did not participate in designing the study, they did engage in field data collection, data entry, data analysis, interpretation of results, and presentation of results at a professional conference.
  • The students learned many research skills, including taking good field notes, using research equipment, lab techniques, mapping, data analysis, and communicating research results.
  • The student research activities made significant contributions to a dataset on coastal dune change and variables that now spans more than 10 years.
  • All three students went on to other research projects after their participation in the dune research project. As of November 2011, one student is in a PhD geology program, one student is in an MS geology program, and one student is applying to graduate programs after working in environmental consulting/restoration.

Lessons Learned

  • For safety and efficient data collection, the research students always went to the field site with at least one other member of the research team.
  • Field data collection can be time intensive! Including travel time (the state park is an hour from campus), most site visits took 5-6 hours to complete.
  • Because of the time requirements and competing commitments, scheduling weekly field measurements during the academic year can be challenging. Working with a team of three students enabled a rotation such that each student would go to the field site every 2-3 weeks and would work on campus in the other weeks.
  • On-site training is important for new research students. The faculty supervisor deliberately planned to be in the field the first two times that each student was doing field data collection. During the first site visit, she demonstrated the methods and then had the research student collect the data. The second site visit allowed the student to take the lead in data collection, with the faculty supervisor available if there were questions.
  • There is no good substitute for in-the-field experience! Weather conditions, equipment failure, interesting processes (and more) provide a variety of learning opportunities for new researchers.