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 contribute 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
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.
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
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,
"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."
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
The LAKES REU Facebook page is available here.
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.