I used existing groundwater monitoring wells in the Back Bay area of Boston, MA as an effective way to teach the applied aspects of integrating the natural world with the built environment. These wells were installed as part of engineering studies for construction and rehabilitation of campus buildings, and through their use in laboratory exercises, undergraduate students developed valuable, field-based insight into the physical meaning of environmental science, mathematical models of groundwater movement, and the practical knowledge of professional practice. I arranged ongoing permission to access these wells and prevent them from being plugged once construction was completed. I compiled the existing long-term well data from both the Northeastern University Physical Plant office and the geotechnical engineering firm who installed the wells, providing students with context for their field measurements in lab.

This project gave undergraduate students in introductory and upper division environmental science courses an opportunity to learn about water quality issues, construction and excavation issues, architectural retrofitting, and historical water table changes through analysis of the data. Close proximity of the wells to the classroom made possible many independent student projects.

Through the Campus Wells Program, I involved the working community - including the Physical Plant staff at multiple colleges, and professional geologists in the geotechnical engineering consulting firm - in the learning process. Students recognized that their class laboratory exercises contributed real data to a long-term study of the hydrogeology of the campus, giving students buy-in to the project. The Campus Wells Program is a virtually cost-free, practice-oriented teaching opportunity that any university undergoing construction or site cleanup can implement.

LEARNING OUTCOMES

At the conclusion of this study, students should be able to understand groundwater flow through porous media, know how to sample wells, be able to construct a water table map as well as a deep potentiometric surface map, and to calculate vertical and horizontal hydraulic gradients.

CLASSROOM TESTED? YES

INTRODUCTION

Hydrogeology involves the study, analysis, and interpretation of the movement of water through a matrix that is generally impossible to observe directly. Hydrogeology is therefore a quantitative discipline, with characteristics and parameters best understood when modeled numerically. This presents a challenge in teaching undergraduates, many of whom lack the level of math necessary to understand the physical meaning of the mathematical equations. It is imperative, however, that students coming out of college with a degree in an environmental field have a working knowledge of groundwater including flow and solute transport given the critical role that water plays for life on Earth.

The Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and Northeastern University are urban campus with practice-oriented missions. In Environmental programs, access to field sites for course laboratories is a goal, but poses a challenge. While Laton [1] demonstrated how a network of monitoring wells can be installed for the purposes of teaching, this was not an option due to cost.

MassArt and NEU are located in Boston, Massachusetts. Like most older coastal cities, landfill was used to expand as real estate values increased. The campuses are part of Back Bay, which is one of the major areas of reclaimed land in the city. Beneath the landfill is a fairly complex system: tidal mud flats and filled salt marshes [2] with incised drainage channels, pockets, and pools [3] and underlain by postglacial meltwater clays and glacial till on a bedrock of conglomerate and slate [4] (Figure 1). Prior to the establishment of the landfill, sewage was discharged onto the flats, making them very undesirable. Dams were constructed on the Back Bay flats as early as the 1820s, with the intention of creating tidal dams as a power source. This scheme was not effective, but did serve to further limit tidal flushing of ongoing sewage discharges. Filling the Back Bay began in 1858 [3] as an attempt to solve this environmental and health problem and to create land for the expanding population [4]. At present, there are no wells withdrawing water as a resource in the city. However, fluctuations in the water table occur due to a range of factors including infiltration of groundwater into ancient, leaking sewers (inflow), leaking water mains (outflow), pumping to dewater the subway system and construction sites, and reduced infiltration caused by increasing impermeable land areas. Since most buildings constructed on the landfill prior to the early 1900s were built on wooden pilings, lowering groundwater levels have led to the tops of pilings being exposed to air, which causes oxidation and wood rot. This has caused building foundations to shift in many parts of the city [5]. Hence, the flow and fluctuations in groundwater on campus can be related to a wide range of geologic, environmental, and historical issues.

FIGURE 1.

Typical soil profile at Prudential Center, Boston, MA (Aldrich 1970)

FIGURE 1.

Typical soil profile at Prudential Center, Boston, MA (Aldrich 1970)

Neither MassArt nor NEU have graduate programs in Environmental Science, Thus, I do not have the opportunity to use graduate research and data in my undergraduate teaching. This poses a challenge when teaching hydrogeology in an applied manner, regardless of whether the course is introductory or upper-division.

I addressed this challenge by using a network of twenty-two (22) preexisting groundwater monitoring wells in the Back Bay (Figure 2). These wells were installed at various times as part of the engineering studies for construction and rehabilitation of campus buildings. They were installed to measure groundwater fluctuations due to construction excavation and to monitor long-term groundwater fluctuations that can affect the stability of foundations for existing buildings. They were sometimes capped at the completion of a project, and sometimes simply abandoned. After discussing the ramifications with NEU Administration, it was agreed that the educational value of this exercise far outweighed potential liability, which was—and is—negligible. This enabled me to create a partnership, known as the Campus Wells Program, with the colleges' Physical Plant staff and with the geotechnical engineering firm Haley and Aldrich, Inc. (H&A). H&A gave me permission to access the wells and has supplied historical data on each well. Permission to access these wells was not automatic, as both H&A and NEU considered liability, potential contamination (both to students and to groundwater), and release of data that has legal ramifications if lawsuits are brought in the future.

FIGURE 2.

Map of Northeastern Campus (including monitoring wells and boring log locations).

FIGURE 2.

Map of Northeastern Campus (including monitoring wells and boring log locations).

The purpose of the Campus Wells Program is to use the wells for field training and to continue to collect water level and water quality data over the long term, and to integrate this data with historical data to develop a model for urban groundwater issues.

In environmental and sustainability courses, students document groundwater fluctuations, and investigate the chemical signature of this groundwater. Students measure groundwater levels as part of projects, sample wells for water quality analysis, and contribute to the growing database. Students then critically evaluate the overall picture of where groundwater is coming from, where it is going, and what the water chemistry along the flowpaths mean.

CASE EXAMINATION

In the introductory classes Environmental Science, Wetland Science and Policy, and Sustainability Science, students work in small groups to locate monitoring wells in the field using maps and data records from NEU and H&A records. Some of these wells have been paved over, and some have been capped, so this challenge reflects real field conditions. Once the students find that wells can be accessed, they complete group exercises using data they collect from the wells, not unlike Fletcher [6], Day-Lewis et al. [7], Laton [1], and Rahn [8]. Students are then charged with devising a research project using well data to address one of many urban groundwater issues. Students collect samples and conduct surveys on site, which provides hands-on exposure to a variety of geological and environmentally relevant issues associated with urban groundwater [9].

I have also developed a suite of applied projects that encompass both use of the network of wells, and tie-in with environmental/historical issues, which include the following:

  • Tidal Influence on Groundwater Levels on Northeastern University Campus: This project involves researching tidal fluctuations in the Boston area, and then sampling several wells at two-hour intervals for a 24-hour period. Though students fail to document a tidal influence, there are many locations in Boston where such a tidal fluctuation in groundwater does exist, and students research and document the construction measures that must be used to work in the subsurface environment where groundwater has diurnal fluctuation.

  • Geochemical Signature of Northeastern Groundwater: Researchers measure geochemical parameters, such as dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, temperature, conductivity, lead, silica, and iron. Once students create a database of these parameters, they research impacts and existing standards for various solutes, what the chemistry tells them about the subsurface environment, and where these chemicals come from.

  • Declining Groundwater Levels on Northeastern Campus: Students look at the long-term records of groundwater elevations on campus. They measure current groundwater levels, add their data to the database, and relate it to the geologic history of the Back Bay as well as reasons why groundwater is declining.

  • A Groundwater Model of Northeastern University: In the course Groundwater Modeling, students create a model of groundwater elevations on the Northeastern campus, and attempt to model conditions and impacts in 20, 50, and 100 years in the future, based on historical trends.

  • Solute Transport in Groundwater Under Northeastern University: In the Groundwater Geochemistry class, students model flow based on well data and the subsurface conditions of the campus from a hydrogeologic and geochemical perspective.

  • Environmental Problems Associated with Declining Groundwater Levels in the Back Bay: This project allows students to investigate declining groundwater levels due to sewer infiltration in Boston and the Back Bay, a region without any active pumping in the region, as sewer infiltration. This includes drawing detailed geologic cross-sections of the Fenway region of the Back Bay in Boston using boring logs from the groundwater wells, and observing examples of structural failure in nearby neighborhoods.

  • Recommendations to MassArt and NEU for Future Building and Development: Factoring in Groundwater: Students develop a series of actions that campus facilities managers should take to both slow the lowering of groundwater beneath the campus buildings, which leads to decay of exposed wooden foundation pilings, and maintain the structural integrity of its buildings.

  • Basement and Building Conditions on Northeastern University Campus as a Result of Declining Groundwater Levels: Students have documented a water table drop of approximately 0.09 inches/year. This loss of groundwater has exposed the tops of the wooden pilings, which leads to decay and ultimate failure. This problem has been documented throughout areas of Boston constructed on landfill. The results of this rotting are evident in buildings where crooked hallways, uneven doorframes, and cracks in basement walls and floors caused by the settling structure are a common sight.

  • Water Main Leak: Resultant Mound and Recommendations to Physical Plant: When the students find a groundwater mound on campus, they are at first puzzled and typically think this mound can be explained by bad data, but then learn that there is a leak in a water main at that location. These students then develop a list of recommendations to address this leak.

  • A Groundwater Model of Point Source Contamination: Worst Case Scenario at Northeastern University: Students model a one-time, slug source of a particular contaminant to project concentrations and dispersion in the region. They then develop a plan for remediation.

The environmental majors and minors who completed the program are engaged to assist with small groups of students from our large introductory classes, including Sustainability Science, Environmental Science, Physical Geology, and Environmental Geology (Figure 3). Most of these students don't understand what a well or what groundwater is. They leave the exercise with an understanding of groundwater and groundwater flow, and a real-world connection to the local geology and the environmental history based on the discussion of the well dynamics.

FIGURE 3.

An alum of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences teaches undergraduates how to use a water level meter to test the hydraulic head in the well (at their feet) (Photo: authors).

FIGURE 3.

An alum of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences teaches undergraduates how to use a water level meter to test the hydraulic head in the well (at their feet) (Photo: authors).

Expansion of the program after initial lab is successful

While a portfolio of student projects is gradually developing, I am expanding the program to integrate with developing programming in GIS, so data will be added to a database consisting of a map of the campus. Students can be sent to find wells, or lost wells, using either the base map or a set of GPS coordinates. Most of the well monitoring data on project-specific wells is often lost over time. With this program, a long-term record is established that hopefully will have increasing educational, as well as scientific, value over time. I also hope to expand the network of wells beyond the campus, most likely through cooperative efforts with nearby colleges and with active construction projects in the vicinity of the campus. Finally, I have begun to have graduates who are now working in the environmental and sustainability fields guest lecture in this lab, while discussing what it is like to be in a consulting job. This fosters connections between students and alumni, and gives our graduates a chance to return to campus as an instructor.

CONCLUSIONS

The Campus Wells Program has been successful on many levels. I developed an ongoing field program for environmental students in at no cost. The program uses wells drilled to solve real-world problems, and will serve as a long-term dataset for the campus. The program engages college Physical Plant staff in the teaching process, which they otherwise rarely venture into. Students work with projects of major geotechnical consulting firm, and often are in contact with the staff. The experience the students gain from well monitoring is a plus when they look for employment in the environmental industries. Using the Campus Wells for instruction in introductory sections allows me to give students field experience. The observation and data collection in these wells also leads to an understanding of the geological and environmental history of the Boston region. This program is transferable: any campus undergoing construction or rehabilitation of buildings that includes groundwater monitoring wells can develop a similar program. The Campus Wells Program is a successful model for applied teaching and practice-oriented education.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. How does this unit contribute to a long-term record of groundwater levels, flow, and characteristics for your campus?

  2. Calculate the hydraulic gradient of your campus by taking two wells that are on either side of your map, and calculating rise over run (distance between the wells divided by the head drop from one well to the other). What does this tell you?

  3. How does this program provide hands-on practice with well dynamics in an urban setting that can be applied to future jobs or graduate work that you do?

  4. Describe how you could now be part of a real ongoing investigation, on groundwater?

  5. Develop a hypothesis and discuss how you would test it on a real groundwater supply or contamination problem.

  6. Relate the application of math to physical principles, and show how math is the only way to solve your particular research problem.

  7. Contact your school's Physical Plant staff and in a formal letter ask them to become involved with your study of groundwater on campus. In it, describe how this is a potential rare opportunity to be part of the education program for which they build and maintain the campus.

  8. Do the same with any consulting geotechnical engineers, who are working on campus, and tell them about how they may become similarly engaged in the learning process.

  9. Trace your groundwater analysis and mapping to a connection to the geology of the region, and the history of your city's development.

  10. If you are in an urban area, how could the failing of building foundations result from groundwater fluctuations, and what is the history of water table fluctuations due to groundwater inflow to failing sewer lines, and outflow from failing water lines?

I wish to thank Peter Rosen, former Chair of the Northeastern University Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences for pedagogical support and editorial assistance. Mr. Ron Lavoie, Director of Maintenance and Construction at Northeastern University, provides access to the campus wells and for working with me to establish the Campus Wells Program. I am also grateful to Mr. John Price of the Environmental Health and Safety office at Northeastern University for his involvement in the program. Ms. Marya Gorczyca of Haley & Aldrich, Inc. has been instrumental in providing access to the wells on campus that her firm installed during the construction phase of several buildings, and for guest lecturing in classes. Dr. William Newman was invaluable in providing historical perspective and well data for the Back Bay.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPORTING INFORMATION

Laboratory manual, authored by Jennifer Cole with editing support by colleagues in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University.

REFERENCES

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