ONLINE EXTRA: Bringing the Outdoors In: Application of Hydrogeology Education Tools

JENNIFER Z. WILLIAMS, Earth & Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University; SHARON DYKHOFF Earth & Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University; JON POLLAK, Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc.; and SUSAN L. BRANTLEY, Earth & Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University[mediumsmall end]

When classroom exercises leap off the textbook page and go beyond "canned" projects, student engagement in the lesson and application of the lesson exponentially increases. Establishing this experiential context for learning about the environment creates a connection between the outside world around us and the inside world of technology, creating a driver of scientific inquiry that can be initiated from either direction. Here, we utilize the recent expansion of energy exploration in Pennsylvania, specifically of the Marcellus Shale, to enhance interest in the Earth sciences. We combine place-based learning techniques and teach the complete cycle of data, from collection to publication to analysis to reuse.

As students connect their own research inquiry and data to large, previously published datasets, they establish an informal collaboration with scientists, giving them a role in the process of scientific discovery. Place-based learning that focuses on real world, local issues also encourages students to become active and informed citizens. These connections can be challenging to create, yet fundamentally valuable once established and the application of the scientific method takes on a deeper perspective.

The Project

Black Moshannon Creek is a 30km waterway, which lies in the heart of Black Moshannon State Park in Pennsylvania. The creek is sourced by a spring-fed lake (DCNR, 2015) and meanders underneath a federal highway and past active unconventional gas extraction wells (PFBC, 2016). In fall of 2012, the State College Area High School (SCAHS) chapter of TeenShale Network was established. Chapter membership is extracurricular and draws from the Earth Science student body, 8th and 9th graders, to investigate water quality impacts from "hydrofracking." Fracking is the colloquial term for hydraulic fracturing, a method for creating fractures in shale to recover natural gas (Brantley et al., 2014). The students participating in this inquiry looked at the potential for pollution from gas development in the Allegheny Plateau by collecting data on stream chemistry above and below shale gas wells in a section of Black Moshannon Creek.

Project Activities

In the classroom, Earth science students are introduced to Pennsylvania geology, regional energy exploration of coal and natural gas, water quality characteristics, types and impacts of land use change, and techniques used by academics and government agencies to collect environmental data.

In the field, TeenShale participants and scientists with the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory (SSHCZO) deployed sensors at three sites along the creek (Figure 1) that measured air temperature, water temperature, atmospheric pressure, stream water level, and electrical conductivity at fifteen-minute intervals. During site visits, teams quantified stream discharge using simple mathematical functions and the stream cross-section, measured real-time water quality parameters (i.e. pH, water temperature, electrical conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and total dissolved solids), and collected water samples for chemical analysis. Data were also downloaded from the sensors and immediately visualized using software to display the temporal variations.

Winter months are not always conducive for "in the field" experiences, yet they are ideal for students to engage in data analysis with technology and visualization in the classroom. Using Google productivity software, team members explored various types of graphical representation, experimenting with color and size of markers, trendlines, dual axes, and scale to display and compare variations in data.

Secondary Data Discovery

In addition to fieldwork and visualization of field data, students used HydroClient, a web-based interface developed by CUAHSI that provides access to water quality data from multiple sources in a single search, to discover additional water quality data for their study sites. Students identified and retrieved a comparable data set collected seven years prior in Fang (2008) (Figure 2). Students learned how to use the HydroClient interface by working through a lesson developed for HydroClient ( and available free from SERC (the Science Education Resource Center).

It can be a challenge for students to find data relevant to their study as the number of databases available on the Internet is overwhelming (McGee and Rodriquez, 2017). However, utilizing online tools like HydroClient allows students to do virtual fieldwork anywhere in the United States or the world. In Figure 3, the outputs from HydroClient display data available for download within specified search criteria.

Data-driven hydrogeology lessons using HydroClient can be used to teach students about environmental conditions with a place-based approach. The map interface allows students to examine data from locations that they are familiar with and contrast conditions with other locations using visualization tools that are easy to use. For example, the TeenShale students have observed variations in stream chemistry along Black Moshannon Creek during snowmelt events each spring. The combination of the map interface and the time series visualization supports students making both geographic and temporal conclusions from data.

HydroClient allows discovery of environmental data over a large geographic extent in the United States. Educators can have confidence that the data students examine are accurate because they come from sources such as the USGS, NOAA, university research projects, and watershed associations.

Through HydroClient, students gain improved data literacy by examining metadata and trying to conduct "real" research themselves. This work inevitably introduces the students to problems all researchers face including identifying suitable data sources, how to proceed if there is scarcity in observations in one's study area, and how to properly draw conclusions from data.


(Field) "I feel like in the classroom you learn more about theory, and in the field you apply what you learned," said Valeria P., a 9th grader. "You make more connections to the real world...and I feel like this helps it stay in your brain. It helps you remember by making these connections you've never thought about."

(HydroClient) "The activity helped us think about how we're going to analyze the data we have gathered so far...we have been mostly focusing on the data collection portion of this project, but we have to remember that the analysis is just as important if not more so."

(Faculty Mentor) "It's not a typical classroom lab where the teacher know the answer," Eugene Ruocchio, SCAHS faculty mentor, said. "The answer could take years to find."


Student byline article for 2014:

Student byline article for 2015:

Student byline article for 2016:


Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR, 2015) A Pennsylvania Recreational Guide for Black Moshannon State Park.

Fang, A. (2008) Spatial Analysis of Geochemical Parameters and Loading of Acidity from Moshannon Creek and Clearfield Creek into the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Bachelor of Science, Geosciences, The Pennsylvania State University, p. 72.

McGee, S. and Rodriguez, N. (2017) Getting Students Jazzed about the Critical Zone: Engaging students in authentic inquiry through Data Jam, In The Trenches, vol 7 (4)xx-xx.

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC, 2016) Pennsylvania Wild Trout Waters Natural Reproduction Report, Retrieved from

SRBWRP, Susquehanna River Basin Water Resource Portal (2016), Retrieved from

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