ACM Pedagogic Resources > ACM/FaCE > Projects > Outdoor Classroom > Activities > An Environmental Assessment of Newark Road Prairie

An Environmental Assessment of Newark Road Prairie

Sue Swanson, Beloit College


The goal of this exercise is for students to complete a basic environmental assessment of Newark Road Prairie, a 35-acre wet-mesic prairie and state natural area owned by Beloit College.

The exercise is completed over a 5-week period as the class covers chapters on Streams and Flooding, Soil Resources, and Groundwater Resources. Students visit the prairie once a week during a 2-hour class period. Two additional 2-hour class periods per week are devoted to lecture, discussion, and analysis of field data. During the site visits, students conduct an initial field reconnaissance, measure the discharge of a stream that flows through the prairie (inflow and outflow), describe prairie soils, and measure water levels at seven previously installed water table wells and four staff gages. The field data can be collected in any order after the field reconnaissance is completed.

All field data, including GPS coordinates of the positions of discharge measurements, soils samples, and wells, are recorded in a standardized data dictionary (using GPS Pathfinder Office/TerraSync software) on a handheld PC. A satellite image of the prairie is loaded on the handheld PC, so that students can see where they are relative to other physical features as they collect their data. Data are downloaded in the lab and utilized for the construction of a water table map (by hand) and an assessment of site conditions and potential impacts.

In addition to the data collected in the field, students are given a topographic map of the region, which they utilize to delineate the basin for the stream that flows through the prairie, and a soils map of the prairie, with which they compare their own soil descriptions. They are also given a land use map of the region. Using all of this information, students write a 4 to 5 page report that describes current conditions and potential challenges or threats to the preservation and management of the prairie.

Learning Goals

The following concepts are introduced as the students complete the activity: common soil characteristics (texture, color, structure), drainage networks and basins, stream discharge, hydraulic head, and gaining and losing streams. Students apply these concepts to delineate a watershed, map soils, measure stream flow, and create a water table map.
As part of this exercise, students:
1) Synthesize topographic, soils, stream flow, groundwater flow data.
2) Assess potential impacts to a wet-mesic prairie.
As part of this exercise, students:
1) Learn to operate a handheld PC (Trimble GeoXM).
2) Develop a sense of an acceptable positional error.
3) Learn to use basic field equipment such as a Munsell color chart, a wading rod and current meter, and an electronic water level meter.
4) Work in groups to collect field measurements.
5) Practice contouring skills using groundwater data.
Throughout the experience, the focus remains on the goals of the exercise and not on the handheld PC. The exercise can be completed without the handhelds, but their use streamlines the data collection process. For example, the use of the handheld PCs allows for consistency in field notes. The class discusses what they should collect prior to going into the field. The field form is then pre-loaded into the handheld PC to ensure a complete set of field notes.

Use of the handheld PC also allows students to see their position in the field and on a satellite image of the prairie. This helps students get a feel for the meaning of scale and an acceptable positional error.

Context for Use

Integrates mobile technologies into an introductory level course: Environmental Geology and Geologic Hazards. Exercise is used as part of a sequence of exercises.

Skills that students should have mastered before beginning this activity:

Prior to beginning the exercise, students should have some experience with topographic maps and GPS technology. Concepts related to surface water resources, soil resources, and groundwater resources are introduced as the exercise proceeds.

Description and Teaching Materials


I evaluate this exercise informally in the field as students are making measurements and observations. When data are downloaded, it is also immediately apparent if some field data are missing. This allows students to return to the field and complete their data set. The formal evaluation occurs when I grade the final site assessment. I focus on how students interpret their field data when drafting their water table map, how they draw linkages among the physical data sets, and how they use the regional data sets to infer threats to preservation and management of the prairie.

References and Resources

Supporting data

High quality satellite images or aerial photos are often available from county or municipal planning departments.