Outdoor Classroom Provides Hands-On Learning Opportunities at Colorado State University

College-level and K-12 students are getting wet with interactive learning opportunities focused on surface water and groundwater at Colorado State University’s new GetWET Observatory. The new learning and teaching facility serves as a valuable resource for university students and local teachers and their classes by providing unprecedented access to real-time water data, experience with analytical techniques and advanced water monitoring equipment and workshops on science pedagogy.

In the spring of 2006, a groundwater well field was installed on the Colorado State campus as a way to provide undergraduate students taking geosciences classes with an educational experience focused on hands-on exposure to studying the linkages between surface water and groundwater. The Groundwater Education and Teaching outdoor laboratory, or GetWET, consists of six monitoring wells and a surface-water monitoring station on Spring Creek, a perennial stream that experienced a high-magnitude flood in 1997 and record drought in 2002.

"The greatest value offered by the new GetWET facility is the unique learning opportunities for students. We now have the ability to get students personally involved in analyzing the quantity and quality of groundwater in the wells and surface water in Spring Creek," said Sara Rathburn, assistant professor in geosciences at Colorado State. "This will raise student awareness and understanding of the complex hydrologic issues facing Colorado, such as drought, water supply and water pollution."

One of the primary teaching goals for the GetWET site includes providing undergraduate majors and non-majors with quantitative, real-life, field-based interdisciplinary learning opportunities in surface and groundwater hydrology. Support for K-12 science teachers includes professional development workshops, groundwater well access, inquiry-based classroom exercises, field activities and equipment loans.

The faculty and staff who wrote the grant for the GetWET Observatory partnered with two local schools to offer middle and high school students a pre-college science lab experience and an opportunity for science teachers to receive additional training in groundwater.

Several laboratory-based exercises are currently in use or under development to further enhance the educational opportunities at the GetWET Observatory. Students will eventually collect and analyze data on water levels, conduct hydraulic and tracers test and test for general water quality indicators allowing for a comprehensive understanding of surface water and groundwater interactions. Continuous data recording of hydraulic head, temperature and specific conductance will occur in several wells, and a Web-accessible database will allow students to make annual and seasonal comparisons that enhance student understanding of surface and groundwater processes over time.

A National Science Foundation grant funded the original proposal submitted by Rathburn and her co-public information officers Bill Sanford and Dennis Harry, also in the Department of Geosciences at Colorado State, and Andrew Warnock of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. A generous donation from a local groundwater monitoring equipment manufacturing company, In-Situ, Inc., added to that initial investment.

"Bob Blythe, president and CEO of In-Situ, Inc. approached us with sincere interest and support for our efforts to teach about water resources in a field setting. In-Situ, Inc. is donating state-of-the-art equipment and technology to the GetWET solely for student use. We are very grateful for their support, and this contribution allows us to maximize our educational potential for CSU students," said Rathburn.

Rathburn presented her GetWET research at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in October 2006 along with co-authors Warnock, Sanford and Harry in a session on teaching hydrogeology in the 21st century. To learn more about the GetWET Observatory, go to http://www.csmate.colostate.edu/getwet/