WMU faculty awarded NSF grant to explore fast-growing hydrogeology field

Contact: Deanne Puca
Students monitoring an aquifer test in WMU's Asylum Lake wellfield by measuring water levels during a hydrogeology field course in 2019.

Students monitor an aquifer test in WMU's Asylum Lake wellfield by measuring water levels during a hydrogeology field course in 2019.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Where is the best place to drill a well? How does water flow underground? What contaminants are in our drinking water?

Heightened national interest in the environment, specifically the availability of clean water, has boosted demand for hydrogeologists who study the implications of contaminants in groundwater. As a result, the National Science Foundation is funding research at Western Michigan University to advance student learning in this field.

A pair of faculty members in May will receive a nearly $150,000 grant to better understand how students use 3D spatial thinking skills to predict contamination movement unseen below the surface.

Hydrogeologists typically use snapshots of data collected from maps, wells, field sites and geological models to study sub-surface water flow. Dr. Heather Petcovic, chair of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and professor with the Mallinson Institute for Science Education, and Dr. Matt Reeves, associate professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, will examine how students use spatial thinking skills in learning to solve groundwater contamination problems in the field and classroom settings, improve students' education and, ultimately, advance the profession.

Because it is not known what specific 3D thinking and visualization skills are needed by students to be successful in hydrogeology, we lack best practices for how to teach students, says Petcovic, an expert in geosciences education research. Characterizing these skills is a critical first step toward creating a curriculum that will better prepare future hydrogeologists and attract more to this growing profession, says Reeves, a hydrogeologist the past 25 years.

"Students will need to get comfortable with uncertainty, as most of our data are point measurements," he says. "They will learn to problem-solve using spatial interpretation and visualization on these data to form a conceptual site model."

A research-informed curriculum will also help universities attract and retain a diverse student population, especially among women and students of color, who have been historically excluded from the sciences, adds Petcovic, who says research in engineering, art and architecture education strongly supports the idea that 3D skills are trainable.

"Individuals come into college with varying levels of skill with 3D thinking and problem-solving. If we don't support and train these skills, we run the risk of losing students who would otherwise be very successful. If we know how to improve these skills, we'll meet our goal of retaining more students in the geosciences who will become employees in the high-demand environmental and geosciences labor markets," Petcovic says.

The Western researchers are joined with an alumna and her colleague at Towson University in Maryland for the NSF award. Collaborators include Drs. Peggy McNeal and Joel Moore. McNeal, who earned a doctorate from Western in 2017, was a rare double winner of graduate awards, having earned both an All-University Graduate Research and Creative Scholar award and an All-University Graduate Teaching award.

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