While school is out, research continues with hands-on summer program

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Dangling over the side of a 4-foot hole on a forest floor, Penn State undergraduate Kim Schmid spent the better part of a recent day digging in the dirt -- or collecting soil samples, to be technical.

The end goal: a better understanding of the seasonal ponds known as vernal pools, how they form on shale landscapes and the best way to manage them. That meant Schmid and fellow student John Schneider took turns with a shovel and a post hole-digger -- mosquitos and gnats notwithstanding. Then, starting from the top and inching down they collected samples from each layer of soil. The next step was a ground-penetrating radar survey to unravel the subsurface layers and measure the depth to solid rock beneath them.

"I love it," said Schmid, who will be a junior in the fall. "In classrooms, you learn about it through a textbook. It's cool doing it in person."

Their work in Rothrock State Forest was part of the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU)/Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) at Penn State hosted this summer. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, REUs/RETs give students and teachers from around the country a chance to work on research projects directly with faculty.

"I love it. In classrooms, you learn about it through a textbook. It's cool doing it in person."

-- Kim Schmid, junior

In this case, 12 students and four teachers were matched with faculty either in the Susquehanna Shale Hills project at Penn State or from the Stroud Water Research Center at the Christina River Basin in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. Both NSF-sponsored research sites are what are known as Critical Zone Observatories.

Program principal investigator Tim White, a senior researcher with EESI, said pairing researchers with young talent benefits both groups -- the University teams get help doing their work and college students and school teachers are exposed to new avenues of inquiry while they get hands-on experience.

"We have the need for literally tens of thousands of scientists in our society," White said. "We have to take the brightest students and keep them engaged, and one way to do that is to hire them."

Participants in the REU/RET programs are matched with individual faculty and paid a stipend to work with them over the summer. In Schmid's case, that meant working with White on an ongoing research project focused on central Pennsylvania vernal pools -- ponds that primarily form in the spring and gradually recede by late summer or fall.

White said like other CZO projects, this one does not fit neatly in one category of science. So, the projects could bring together faculty from across disciplines -- engineering, chemistry, geology, ecology or meteorology.

"The CZO is highly interdisciplinary," White said. "What we're trying to do is break the mold. We're trying to get these people really early -- to get them to think in an interdisciplinary way before their brain waves are set."

The work is part of a larger project White is collaborating on with colleagues from Riparia at Penn State: Rob Brooks, professor of geography and ecology; Sarah Chamberlain, botanist; and undergraduate intern Dylan Kubina. Riparia's contribution is to characterize the plant communities of three clusters of vernal pools in similar geologic settings.

White said these wetlands in central Pennsylvania are unique because of where they have formed. Unlike vernal pools in the Scotia Barrens that formed on the sites of old mines and limestone prone to sinkholes, the ponds they are studying are underlain by shale and sandstone.

"Why are there depressions here in the first place -- where these pools can form?" White said, as he, Schmid and Schneider walked through the rhododendron-filled woods.

Vernal pools -- also known as wetland depressions -- are crucial to wildlife, providing a breeding ground for salamanders and frogs, and giving birds and deer a place to stop for water. The water of the pool under study, White said, feeds into the headwaters of the tributaries that eventually flow into Shaver's Creek.

"There are these unique wetlands that exist in central Pennsylvania," he said. "We're trying to figure out how they form, why they are where they are and use that information as a tool for identifying more of them. Because these wetlands are so important for water quality and wildlife, we're trying to figure out a way to take that information and use it for land management and conservation."

The particular pond they were headed to on a July morning was about a 1.5-mile hike from a gravel forest road. The water had already sunk beneath the grass, but the land was still marshy and a croaking frog greeted the scientists on the sticky summer day.

After Schmid and Schneider dug the hole -- the fourth one at the site including a core sample taken from the marsh -- they began to classify the soil in layers starting at the top and making their way down. Schmid said their hypothesis -- based on the color, texture and quality of the rock -- is that a deep, boulder layer was deposited during the period known as the Illinoisan Glacial Maximum and the cobbly upper layer was deposited during the most recent Wisconsin Glacial period.

To confirm or refute that, they used a mortar and pestle to crush the samples into an extremely fine power before sending them to the lab for major element geochemical analyses.

The next step was the ground-penetrating radar survey, which when aimed into the ground reflects off the different layers. It records the time it takes for the energy to go down and bounce back up, giving the team an image of the layers and helping them figure out how deep it is to solid rock.

The team also took samples in the Jersey Shore area. To get a sense of how common the pools are, the team hiked to similar topographic sites in central Pennsylvania, noting whether there were vernal pools or not.

"By focusing on a couple of sites, we're trying to come up with a model that we can use to predict where more of these exist, for the purpose of preserving and managing them," White said.

So far, they're finding that the pools form in a specific setting: what's known as the headwater drainage divide on shale bedrock.

Other students and teachers in the REU/RET program were paired with faculty to help with their research. One student, for example, worked with Susan Brantley, a distinguished professor of geosciences and director of EESI. For that project, the student's work focused on Shaver's Creek, and how natural landscapes and human activities can impact water chemistry in the creek. That research is part of the larger Susquehanna Shale Hills project, which Brantley is principal investigator for.

This is the first year for this REU/RET program, which will continue for two more years and is one of several at Penn State. 


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Last Updated September 09, 2014