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Fall 2006 - Wetlands

Destination Purdue > Fall 2006 - Wetlands

Wetlands offering hands-on learning

By Becky Zeiber

About 15 miles northwest of Purdue University's West Lafayette campus is a tiny oasis for migrating birds in the autumn and frogs in spring. The cattails and marsh grasses in this small wetland area are such a natural contrast to the nearby agricultural fields, they look like they've been there forever. But the four equally sized square wetland cells tell a story of their own.

EPICS members working

Photo by Becky Zeiber

EPICS members work on installing monitoring equipment in a constructed wetlands area near Purdue University's West Lafayette campus. ( From left) Jed Wright, a senior natural resources and environmental science major from West Point, Ind., Qinling Zheng, a senior civil engineering major from Fuzhou, China, and Lethuthando "Fix" Dlamini, a senior natural resources and environmental science major from Lozitha, Swaziland, Africa.

Just over a decade ago, Purdue students helped construct these wetlands to improve the water quality in a nearby stream. They began by planting vegetation, but the project has grown into something more. Now, the wetlands are part of an ongoing project by students involved in Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) for the Tippecanoe County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD).

"At first, the students were like 'Oh my gosh, it's so much work,'" said Don Emmert, water quality educator at the SWCD. "But then they got involved with the project and they enjoyed it and learned and progressed. We watched them grow," he said.

EPICS is a Purdue student organization that allows students to get involved with hands-on projects like these constructed wetlands. The projects augment their education by building skills (such as communication), and provide benefits to the community. "This EPICS project was interesting to me because I got to work hands-on with people in other majors and with a client," said Julie Smock, a senior in natural resources and environmental science from Richmond, Va.

Smock was involved in the constructed wetlands project for EPICS in spring 2005. Her team was in charge of getting a mechanical device used to test water quality (called a sonde) in working condition. "I enjoyed the change from lecture," Smock said. "You actually feel that your education is paying off because it's so hands-on."

Partners in the community
By Becky Zeiber

The Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program places teams of undergraduate students from a variety of majors in the local community to solve problems and apply their educations. Current EPICS projects include:

  • Developing an environmental monitoring system to preserve collections at an art museum.
  • Creating education materials for Lafayette's Columbian Park Zoo.
  • Improving the operational efficiency at the Lafayette Chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Find out more:

EPICS at Purdue

Smock said that the nature of the project was a different experience for her because it was heavily student-run, so it put the duties of organizing the project, creating a budget and adhering to deadlines on the students' shoulders. "It was such a different experience than someone telling you 'this is what you do' and instead doing it yourself," Smock said. "You have to take responsibility for your project."

The constructed wetlands EPICS project is part of a plan for a water monitoring program that will help determine how well the wetlands are filtering the surrounding agricultural ditch water. Last spring, one of the project goals was to deploy the sonde in the wetlands. The sonde will help determine if the wetlands are purifying the water as they should be. Getting the sonde deployed and working has earned EPICS students a quality reputation with organizations and agencies like Tippecanoe SWCD.

"We're seen as a client," Emmert said. "We come to them and say, 'We need you to do this for us,' and they need to come up with ideas and figure out how to come up with a solution."

Chad Jafvert, a Purdue professor of environmental chemistry, has been the constructed wetlands team advisor for two years. Since the project began in the mid-1990s, students have built a wooden bird-watching deck, maintained weir boxes to regulate water levels and planted vegetation. Whatever the project involves, the overall goal is to keep the wetlands maintained.

"It's like a mini-research project for undergraduates," Jafvert said. "Students get to work in teams and work on something they've never worked on before. They are building something, and students like the fact that they're doing something that isn't just repeating what they heard in class."

In addition to deploying the sonde, the team is trying to figure out methods to record information about water temperature and levels and to transmit real-time information to the Internet for the SWCD to access at any time.

At the end of each semester, EPICS students must give presentations discussing their progress to the clients. Emmert has attended a couple of these presentations and has received positive feedback from the SWCD regarding this collaboration with Purdue students. "It's an eye-opening experience for students," he said. "They'll be able to take this experience with them out of the Purdue classroom and into the workplace."