HMEI researchers teach local students to think like hydrologists at Watershed Institute workshops

Staff ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Princeton-area high-school students had the opportunity this summer to think like hydrologists — and simulate a volcanic eruption! — through interactive lessons presented by High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) researchers and Princeton graduate students at The Watershed Institute in Pennington, New Jersey.

Graduate students Sara Cerasoli in civil and environmental engineering and Christopher Browne in chemical and biological engineering worked with HMEI’s Lisa Gallagher, education and outreach manager for the Integrated GroundWater Modeling Center (IGWMC), to instruct students enrolled in week-long immersive environmental science workshops at the Watershed in analyzing and developing geohydrological models that capture the dynamics of groundwater.

Students observe fluid injected into a physical aquifer model.
Knowlton Godrey and David Gao observe fluid activity in a physical aquifer model. Princeton graduate student Sara Cerasoli developed an online tool that lets students see how their modeling decisions would impact agriculture, groundwater-recharge and environmental systems. (Photo by The Watershed Institute)

In one module, students designed and tested their own soil permeameters — which measure how quickly water flows through soil — from easily accessible materials. A web application Browne developed for the module included videos, instructions and examples for designing a permeameter, and it allowed users to enter data for analysis and presentation in graphical form. Students at the Watershed were encouraged to follow their own creativity to produce two systems as final prototypes. In addition, students enrolled in a collaborative learning workshop during the first week of activities had the chance to teach what they learned to their peers taking part in the following week’s Watershed Academy.

The second module was based on an enhanced version of the ParFlow Sandtank model —a physical aquifer educational model developed through the IGWMC-related HydroFrame project — that explored concepts related to climate change, agriculture and groundwater-recharge rates. The Agrosystem enhancement developed by Cerasoli allowed students to explore groundwater hydrogeology using physical models, then students used the online tool to see the impact of their decisions related to crop type, groundwater-recharge, and trade-offs to achieve crop revenues on environmental systems.

People pouring liquid nitrogen into a sealed container.
Gallagher and IGWMC project coordinator Tara Kelly (right) prepare the “Trash-cano,” which simulates a volcanic eruption using liquid nitrogen in a sealed container, for the final day of activities. (Photo by The Watershed Institute)

Cerasoli and Browne developed the modules during the spring 2021 graduate environmental studies course, “Understanding Hydrology and Environmental Engineering Through Teaching,” taught by Reed Maxwell, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute and director of the IGWMC. The course tasked students with developing novel, shareable educational models by combining existing educational tools being developed as part of HydroFrame and HydroGEN, a $5 million NSF-funded project to simulate the nation’s watershed systems.

The HMEI outreach team closed the events with a day of “explosive” activities, including Coke and Mentos eruptions and an epic “Trash-cano” that simulates a volcanic eruption using liquid nitrogen in a sealed container.

Liquid exploding upward from a trash can.
The eruption of Trash-cano. (Photo by The Watershed Institute)