UW-Stout students and faculty to report on watershed research

July 24, 2014

All summer long, 10 student researchers like Cassandra Beckworth of Chippewa Falls have been traveling the back roads of Dunn County, standing knee deep in the rivers and lakes of the Red Cedar watershed or talking with citizens, farmers and policymakers, to get a better understanding of the myriad factors that Cassandra Beckworthcontribute to the blue-green algae pollution that is evident this time of year in those lakes and rivers.

The researchers, who come from colleges and universities across the United States, are spending two months in the Menomonie area as part of a three-year, $282,000 National Science Foundation grant program called LAKES REU, or Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability Research Experience for Undergraduates.

The results of the first year of research will be released at 5 p.m. Aug. 6, at The Raw Deal in Menomonie. The public is invited to attend the forum.

The student researchers, who are mentored by UW-Stout faculty — which this year includes Steve Nold, Chris Ferguson, Tina Lee, Matt Kuchta and Nels Paulson — are approaching the problem of phosphorous pollution with 10 simultaneous research projects.

Some projects focus on the biological and geological angles, looking at the influences found in the sediment, groundwater and the dynamics in the lake. Some focus on the sociological, including how the social network of farmers can influence their adoption of sustainable farming practices, and what the constraints are for government officials, policymakers and local community organizations for creating the best social policies to fix water pollution. Other projects look at the economics, analyzing what citizens are willing to pay to fix the algae bloom and what incentives are necessary for land owners to reduce pollutants coming off their land.

Mary Marchiafava and Peng Vang, participants in LAKES Research Experience for Undergraduates, collect water samples and data from Tainter Lake to better understand root causes of phosphorus pollution and to propose solutions through cutting edge research.For example, Beckworth, a senior at UW-Stout majoring in applied social science, has been going from farm to farm, asking questions about how farmers view their land use practices, the constraints they feel surrounding those practices and the social networks that inform their perceptions and actions.

Beckworth said that the social network analysis she and others are conducting of both farmers and local policymakers "will give us insight into the different attributes that key members possess and how these members are connected to one another, allowing us to understand and implement solutions."

The program is aimed at undergraduates who are minority or first-generation college students or attend institutions with limited research opportunities. Paulson said he has been blown away by what the researchers, including those who are studying the watershed hydrology and sediment, have accomplished.

"It's extraordinary," said Paulson, assistant professor of sociology and one of the co-directors of the program. "The UW-Stout mentors have heavy teaching schedules that limit our time for research. So what these student researchers have done in the past five weeks might have taken us five years."

Peng Vang filters water samples collected from Tainter Lake in a UW-Stout biology lab. Another part of the project involves the use of ethnography, Paulson said, which involves participant observation of the people in the study. "It's a more holistic way of gathering valid data, especially combined with the other research in the LAKES project" he said.

The student researchers have been blogging about their experiences. One of the entries is from Zakia Elliot, a junior from Brown University in Rhode Island:

"Public opinion on cleaning up the lakes (Menomin and Tainter) seems to be polarized—some people have expressed excitement and hopefulness, whereas others described attempts to clean up the lake as a waste of time …Is imagining a clean lake a fantasy? …I'm still determined to be a part of the effort to prove another non-believer wrong."

Read more about the project at LAKES REU.

Student researchers are blogging about the project.

The LAKES REU Facebook page is available here.

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Photo captions

Cassandra Beckworth

Mary Marchiafava and Peng Vang, participants in LAKES Research Experience for Undergraduates, collect water samples and data from Tainter Lake to better understand root causes of phosphorus pollution and to propose solutions through cutting edge research.

Peng Vang filters water samples collected from Tainter Lake in a UW-Stout biology lab.