Groundwater wells

Cinzia Cervato, Iowa State University
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Initial Publication Date: August 8, 2014


We created a field of 8 wells that tap into the unconfined aquifer close to campus. Four of the wells are open for students to collect samples and take measurements. The remaining four wells have instruments that collect automatically water depth, temperature and conductivity data several times each day. The wells are close to a stream. At the beginning of the semester, teams of 4 students identify a research project that uses these facilities. The students will collect data, analyze them, and draw conclusions over a 6-week period. Teams present their findings on posters in the lab and at a public event where a team of judges evaluate their work using a rubric.

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Introductory physical geology lab for non-majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They need to learn how to use the handheld device to measure temperature, pH, and conductivity, to determine the depth of water in the well, and to use a bailer to collect samples. They also need to learn how to measure nitrate, phosphate and dissolved oxygen in the field. They spend one lab period with two TAs on the well site to familiarize themselves with the equipment.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the backbone of the lab, a six-week long authentic research project created and driven by the students under the guidance of their TA.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Basic understanding of groundwater/surface water relationships and flow including contaminant sources.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

We want students to understand the nature of science and acquire basic quantitative skills. We want them to develop a research hypothesis that can be tested in the time frame and with the equipment and boundaries/limitations of the well field. We want them to analyze their data, draw a conclusion, and evaluate their own process at the end.

Other skills goals for this activity

Team work, create a scientific poster and present their research to peers and faculty, operate the equipment available for basic chemical analysis of water and to measure depth in a well and collect samples.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students chose their project. Popular projects involve the analysis of nitrate and phosphate as potential contaminants from fertilizers, the flow of groundwater through town, where students collect water depth information also from other locations upstream or downstream. Other groups study the relationship between water in the nearby stream and the groundwater in the wells (losing or gaining stream). They see some of the best posters from past years, but they are completely free to choose what they want to do as long as it is doable in the limited time frame (six weeks).

Teaching Notes and Tips

We obtained funds from different sources to drill the wells and buy the basic equipment. Lab fees are used to replace consumables and repair or replace broken equipment. The main rationale for this project was to have students in an intro lab work on an authentic research project. In our setting, and given the interest of students in water, this project was chosen. We have been running our reformed labs for 3-4 years already. Some logistics - fall vs spring, snow that makes access to the wells difficult, drought that dries up some of the wells and the stream - need to be worked out each semester.


We assess students' understanding of the nature of science using the SUSSI instrument. We also use the TOSLS for quantitative reasoning.

References and Resources

TAs have lesson plans and material available to them on Blackboard. The material is specific for our site and lab schedule. I will be happy to share it with interested instructors upon request.