In Collaboration with Elk River, Students Adopt a New Approach to Discovery and Problem Solving

February 20, 2017 / By: Mackenzie Burke, SCP Intern

For last semester’s Aquatic Biology class, collaboration with Elk River offered an invaluable and somewhat unexpected learning experience working in the field. They partnered on a project aimed to find ways to predict water pollutant levels in Lake Orono after rainfall. Specifically, the class experimented with different models in attempt to predict levels of the fecal coliform bacteria in Lake Orono. When fecal coliform levels are too high, the water is not safe enough for the public to swim. There is a time delay with the current system Elk River uses to measure water safety in Lake Orono. An ideal model would predict fecal coliform levels so the city could preemptively announce whether or not the water is safe for swimming. 

Biology student, Mary Cunningham, explains “To address this project, we began looking at the collected data of fecal coliform from Elk River, and tried to see if there were any patterns.” Together, they designed models based on variables including temperature, precipitation, and delayed precipitation from rivers upstream.

As it turned out, the models were not able to accurately predict fecal coliform levels. While the anticipated solutions may not have been found, the process alone was richly enlightening to the class and Elk River. Environmental Science student, Marnie Sciamanda notes, “It was an interesting project because we all made different models and none of them were successful in predicting when fecal coliform was going to spike. The main take away was that some projects aren’t going to work out perfectly. Instead of stopping at ‘This didn’t work,’ we adapted and brainstormed alternative ways to move forward.”

While working with real life issues facing communities today may be messier and more complicated than working in the traditional classroom, it is in these unexpected outcomes where much of the discovery is found. Biology student, Katie Skwarek, adds to the value of this project, “It helped me realize there is a lot more that goes into solving problems in a community. You must be able to look at the big picture and understand that there is more than just a scientific principle that goes into it.”

Lab instructor, Leah Domine, also saw distinct value to the nature of limitations in a project grappling with real life circumstances, “They worked as a collective team, and I think probably for the first time really dealt with the realistic use of their work. For the next steps and recommendations, they couldn’t just throw out any idea – they had to think about reality and restrictions – which always constrains what you can do.”

For Professor Domine, this experience also provided a new and meaningful opportunity to shift her role as an instructor, “From my perspective, it gave me a chance to truly act as a coach rather than a judge. It was wonderful to sit as a group and talk about all the positives and negatives of their products, analyze their work in a completely objective way, with the goal of delivering the best product possible.”

On top of the lessons learned throughout the duration of this project, the biology class also had meaningful findings to share with Elk River. Professor Domine explains, “We gave them an overview of the fecal coliform models the students created, provided background info on coliform itself, and gave suggestions of things they may want to do in the future to help improve their capability of predicting fecal coliform peaks better, and ultimately mitigating the sources.”

By opening up and grappling with real life challenges facing communities today, the project uncovered nuances and complexities that are necessary to address when trying to create more sustainable communities. As Marnie concludes, “We didn’t expect a perfect solution, but we came up with a lot of alternatives through the research we did. We found new questions to ask, new possibilities, made it more complex, and shared new opportunities for research.”

This spring semester, an Environmental Problem Solving class will take on the continuation of this project with Elk River. Together, they will be expanding on the critical questions, new findings, and suggested routes gathered from last semester’s analysis. This knowledge will help the class create new models of predicting threshold levels of fecal coliform in Lake Orono in order to keep the public safe and informed.