Burd Run Interdisciplinary
Watershed Research Laboratory

Shearer Hall
1871 Old Main Dr.
Shippensburg, PA 17257


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Project Overview

The Burd Run Interdisciplinary Watershed Research Laboratory at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania (SU) is a cooperative effort among 13 faculty from the Departments of Geography-Earth Science, Biology, and Teacher Education to: (1) provide intensive undergraduate field training through collection and analysis of related hydrologic, geologic, biologic, and geographic data from a single watershed, (2) establish a comprehensive statistical and spatial watershed database using a geographic information system (GIS), (3) use the accumulated data for student investigations in a wide variety of environmentally related courses, and (4) facilitate similar approaches at other institutions.  The project involves equipment acquisition; continuous monitoring of hydrology, water quality, and meteorology; and data collection and analysis in various undergraduate courses.

Goals and Objectives

The project will link learning across courses and disciplines over several semesters, allowing students to build and integrate scientific skills throughout their education using the watershed as a common case study. Six specific needs will be addressed: (1) strengthen hands-on field and laboratory learning; (2) enhance students' quantitative skills; (3) improve the teaching of complex, interdependent environmental systems by linking a variety of scientific perspectives to a common case study; (4) allow students to conduct long term monitoring of environmental change and impacts of human disturbance; (5) improve the earth-space science and biology education curricula by providing pre-service teachers intensive training in scientific methods; and (6) provide field opportunities otherwise unavailable for a wide range of users.

Watershed Description

The Burd Run watershed is an ideal setting for an environmental laboratory due to its proximity to SU (the stream flows through campus), its manageable scale, and its diverse physical characteristics. Burd Run at the SU campus drains a watershed of 51.8 km2.

Burd Run heads atop South Mountain, the local name given to the northern part of the Blue Ridge, at an elevation of 591m. There, two mountain tributaries flow through the Michaux State Forest, an area of sandy soils developed on Cambrian quartzite. Near the base of South Mountain, these tributaries combine and flow across thick Pleistocene colluvial deposits that support mixed forestry and agriculture eventually emerging into the Cumberland Valley. As the colluvium thins with distance from the base of the mountain, several units of Ordovician and Cambrian limestone are exposed (Root 1965), some of which include solution cavities and other karst features (Shirk 1980). Agriculture is the primary land use on the silt loam and clay loam limestone soils until the stream flows into the Borough of Shippensburg. Urban land uses dominate the lower watershed, where the stream eventually flows across the SU campus at an elevation of 189m.

Water quality varies considerably with geology and land use. For example, pH readings in the forest/quartzite environment are acidic (pH = 4.5), whereas water flowing through the limestone terrain of the Cumberland Valley is buffered (pH = 7.5). Temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, and other water quality parameters also vary considerably in the different watershed environments. This variability among topography, geology, land use, and water quality provides an excellent field laboratory for a wide range of course projects and investigations.

Implementing course and curricular improvements.

Several examples of individual course improvements facilitated by the watershed laboratory are detailed below. Improvements were also made to additional courses (soils, groundwater, water resources management, mapping sciences, etc.).

Hydrology. Students in this undergraduate geography course will delineate the watershed and surface water features on topographic maps and aerial photographs as the basis of the GIS hydrography coverage. Four new field laboratory exercises will be developed: (a) water quality data acquisition and interpretation (using the water quality sonde, colorimeter, and existing equipment) (b) stream current velocity and discharge measurement (using current meters to be purchased), (c) infiltration capacity of various watershed soils, and (d) rainfall-runoff computer modeling (using HEC-1 software already owned by SU and using the watershed database for input data). These exercises will emphasize watershed variability, incorporating maps of watershed characteristics generated in other courses to explain local hydrologic conditions. Two examples illustrate the enhancement of existing course projects with data made available through the watershed laboratory: (a) estimation of evaporation rates, currently based on hypothetical data, will be based on local data provided by students in other courses using the meteorological instruments; (b) flood probability analysis will focus on campus facilities located along Burd Run, utilizing rainfall-runoff modeling results, the record of discharges recorded at the stream monitoring station, and floodplain surveying to be conducted in geomorphology courses.

Ecology (biology majors and all pre-service biology teachers) and Introduction to Ecology (non-majors). These undergraduate biology courses currently include a laboratory section in which students intensively study the Burd Run watershed. Students visit watershed sites where they collect data on physical, chemical, and biological parameters, including water quality and macroinvertebrate community composition. The students then analyze and interpret the data, investigating relationships among the various parameters. Using the watershed laboratory database and computers to be purchased for use in the biology department, students will not only be able to compare results among years and locations, but will also be able to explore relationships between their data and data collected in other courses on watershed hydrology, geology, geomorphology, soils, and land use. This integration will provide students with unique learning opportunities and a chance to explore the many factors that contribute to watershed processes. Biology students will also learn the latest in GIS/Arcview technology.

Meteorology and Applied Meteorology and Climatology. Two meteorological stations will allow students of Meteorology to measure precipitation, evaporation, and radiation and energy fluxes; the data will be incorporated into group laboratory exercises designed specifically for the watershed. Each small group will measure a different component of the energy or radiation balance, justify its importance to watershed processes, and present their results. Evaporation data will be provided to local farmers to incorporate into agricultural water budgets, thus encouraging students to use an applied approach to scientific investigation. The watershed laboratory will also facilitate the development of new field projects in Applied Meteorology and Climatology. Students will develop research projects using both the permanent instrument array located at the watershed outlet and a mobile station that will allow for comparisons of meteorological components across varying terrain, in and out of a forest, above and adjacent to water, etc.

Geomorphology. The proposed project will form the basis for an extensive revision of teaching and learning strategies in geomorphology, one emphasizing learning through direct experience, rather than lecture. Specific field applications for undergraduate students include: (a) using the total station (survey equipment) to map and identify floodplain landforms, (b) incorporating stream discharge data, stream current velocities, and sampling to determine channel conveyance capacity and sediment budgets, (c) applying an understanding of geomorphic processes within the watershed to local environmental problems, such as sinkhole development, and (d) using watershed data as a basis for group research projects, such as exploring soil genesis in various geologic and topographic environments.