Eight undergraduate college students from around the nation, including three from Kentucky, joined three area teachers in a 10-week environmental research camp that focused on “Carbon Storage and Headwater Health in the Appalachian Headwaters.”
The camp, co-hosted by Eastern Kentucky Environmental Research Institute at Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Civil Engineering, was the first in a series of three funded by a $537,400 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates and the Research Experience for Teachers programs.
The undergraduate participants, each of whom completed their own project, were: London native Peter Acton, University of Kentucky; John B. Allison, Georgia Institute of Technology; Nikki Byrd, Lincoln Memorial University; Guy N. Evans, College of William & Mary; Shelbyville native Stephanie Jarvis, The College of Wooster; Krista M. Lyle, Lees-McRae College; Russell native Kameron Mayne, University of Notre Dame; and Lee Penwell, Amherst College. More than 60 undergraduates from across the U.S. applied for the eight positions.
Participating teachers were Susan Neumann and Adrian Nix, both of Model Laboratory School, and April Gonzales, Rockcastle County High School.
For each of the first five weeks, the undergraduates split time between fieldwork in Letcher and Breathitt counties, classroom and laboratory. After two weeks processing soil and water samples in the lab, they spent the final three weeks analyzing their research results, which were presented on Aug. 5.
The field research was conducted primarily in areas in and near EKU’s Lilley Cornett Woods and UK’s Robinson Forest. Together, the two sites presented “ideal” ecological contrasts and allowed the students to study how organic carbon cycling and sediment transport processes are affected by mining and reclamation practices and other changes in land use such as residential development, logging and gas pipeline and road construction, according to Dr. Alice Jones, director of the Eastern Environmental Research Institute.
“Understanding carbon cycling is going to be one of the most important scientific pursuits of the next 30 years,” Jones said.
Looking at carbon activity in soils and water as well as aquatic and environmental health, the participants compared four distinct areas: the “control group” of old-growth, never-mined forests of Lilley Cornett Woods; areas mined 30 years ago but not since; an area of active mining; and an area reclaimed about a decade ago.
“On the whole, the control group had the best water quality, but the worst water quality did not appear to be associated with mining or reclamation activity, but rather by residential development and road construction.
“It’s not surprising,” Jones said, “but we documented that soils on sites that have been mined are not as productive or healthy as soils before mining. What seems to be happening in valley fill and reclamation areas is that the traditional compaction used to stabilize the slopes and prevent landslides leads to a sort of permanent ‘soil adolescence’ or ‘arrested development’ where the soil column never really matures the way that it does in an unmined area.”
Penwell, a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said the summer program “offered a comprehensive research experience that guided participants through a research problem from start to finish. I learned so much about scientific writing and field techniques as well as productive collaboration.”
One unique aspect of the research camp, Jones noted, is the diversity in academic disciplines among the students: civil engineering, geology, biology and chemistry, among others.
“These are students who’ll be our next generation of scientists looking at these big-picture questions. They’re learning to work together across disciplinary boundaries and modeling the way science is going to be done in the future.”
Modeling that behavior for the undergraduates were Jones, a landscape geographer by academic training, and Co-Director Dr. James Fox, assistant professor of civil engineering at UK.
“The program is excellent because it draws on the strengths of Dr. Jones and the Environmental Research Institute at EKU, including a multifaceted view of the coal carbon issue from scientific, social, and economic perspectives,” Fox said, “while at the same time allowing a positive collaboration with experts in sediment transport and watershed processes at UK, including graduate students, the staff at the Environmental Research and Training Laboratory and UK faculty.”
At the same time, Jones added, the directors learned from the students.
“We were inspired by their creativity in the research process. They raised questions that we wouldn’t have considered and brought ideas to the program, and that’s one of the rewards for us.”
The three local teachers in the camp used the experience to develop lesson plans related to carbon cycling and were each given a small budget to implement a unit of study in their classrooms during the current school year.
For all the participants, the 10 weeks also included time for several fun excursions and allowed for a greater understanding of Appalachian culture.
The camp also underscored for Jones the value of Lilley Cornett Woods as a “great place to conduct research,” because it shows what an Appalachian forest and ecology would be without major disturbances.”
Next year, students will return to the same areas and “pick up where this group left off,” Jones said.