Measuring Water At Crystal Springs

Aspiring earth scientists spend a day getting all wet for hands-on experience.


By Mary Beth Erskine News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (July 2, 2010) – There’s a cacophony of sound along the Hillsborough River that cuts through the muggy morning air. The muffled hoo-hoo-to-hoo of a barred owl. The rolling rattle of sand hill cranes. The impertinent buzz of cicadas so loud it nearly drowns out the gentle splash of USF students as they wade slowly from bank to bank in the clear, green water.


The students are aspiring geologists, the next generation of earth scientists. And they’re literally getting their feet wet in the practicalities of their future professions – in this case, how to use the latest technology to measure discharge into the river from nearby springs. It’s a fundamental skill for a hydrogeologist like Jason Bellino. A USF alumnus who now works for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Bellino and fellow USGS hydrogeologist Victor Levesque spend a hazy June morning at Crystal Springs Preserve showing USF students how to use the tools of their trade.


Bellino, for example, teaches students how to gather discharge data – measurements of the quantity of water passing through a given location – using a wading pole. After stringing a cable across the river to assist in gathering the information at regular points, students take turns recording discharge readings. It’s a slow, methodical process that can have the scientist in the water for half an hour or more.


Under the direction of Mark Stewart, USF professor and hydrogeologist, and Mark Rains, USF associate professor and hydrogeologist, the hands-on experience is part of a tradition in geology education: field camp.


Geologists work in the most physical of realms. Rocks. Soil. Water. As USF student Sierra Fortune puts it, to learn geology best, “you need to see it, touch it, move it around in your hands.” So, in essence, the earth, itself, is a geologist’s laboratory. And that’s why field camp is a curriculum requirement for geology majors, including those at USF.


“Most geosciences professionals would contend that you can’t really say you have a B.S. in geology unless you’ve completed a summer field geology course,” said Jeffrey Ryan, USF geology professor and department chair. “It is the ‘capstone’ experience for the discipline.”


According to Ryan, only a fraction of university geology departments nationwide offer field courses. Therefore, a large percentage of undergraduate geology majors seek field camp experiences at institutions other than their own. USF has offered its own field camp since 2003.


“Most ‘old-school’ field courses are only about field geologic mapping,” said Ryan. “Ours is a new model field course in that it includes field experiences in several geosciences subdisciplines: coastal sedimentology, hydrogeology, applied geophysics, and structural geology and mapping.” Each two-week segment involves doing geology outside in a research environment with faculty who specialize in that discipline and takes place both in and out of state, as well as on and off campus.


“Offering our own field camp enables us to follow on more effectively with students in terms of developing their technical and cognitive skills as geoscientists,” said Ryan. “We know what we’ve done with them, so we know where to go.” In addition, since field camp activities are aligned with current research underway by faculty in the department, students are well-prepared to participate in undergraduate research efforts or to start a graduate program.


For example, as a rule, the segment focused on coastal geology directed by faculty members Ping Wang and Richard Davis takes students to the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. There, students examine environments such as barrier islands, coastal marshes, tidal flats and estuaries to gain experience in skills including coastal surveying and mapping on land and in shallow marine environments, and measuring and interpreting data on tides and waves. According to Fortune, this year the class traveled first to the Alabama coast to gather baseline data on the oil spill in the form of sediment cores, which will be used by USF scientists for research purposes.


“Field camp is an opportunity for students to make connections between the classroom and the practical, working side of geology,” said Rains. “And for me as instructor, it’s exciting to see those lights come on.”


Rains gives students plenty of warning regarding some of those “practical” aspects of geology. He tells them that some of the field exercises will be difficult and physically demanding, that most will be conducted in hot, humid and buggy environments and that they will sweat, get wet and get bit.


“However, I also tell them that they will learn more in the two weeks of field camp about hydrogeology and ecohydrology than in all their previous coursework combined.”


Much of the success for the field course segments that are run in state is due to Geology Department partnerships with governmental agencies and consulting firms such as USGS and phosphate giant CF Industries. When the class travels to the Everglades during the second week, the South Florida Water Management District and US Sugar will be involved. Professionals from these agencies, like Bellino and Levesque, share their knowledge first-hand with USF geology students.


The partnership between USF and the USGS is one of the longest of the numerous collaborative relationships USF shares with organizations in both the private and public sectors. As a result, over the last 25 years, 75 USF graduates have found employment with the agency and, according to Rains, “Some of the top names today in the USGS are USF alumni.”


Senior Ryan Jensen, who participated in the field mapping course in Utah, as well as the geophysics and hydrogeology said, “Field camp is really ‘sink or swim.’ Getting to actually ‘do’ what you’ve been reading about forces you to learn to do it better.”


Fellow student Jonathan Hollingsworth couldn’t agree more. Standing in the water measuring streamflow under the dappled shade of live oaks and sable palms is ideal. “Being out here, connecting with nature to do research and looking at nature from a scientific point of view is just great. I love being a geology major.”


Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.