Class Offering Practical Water Harvesting Experience
Learning about sustainability goes outside the classroom activities for some UA students.

Alan Fischer
Feb. 24, 2010


Learning about sustainability goes outside classroom activities for some University of Arizona students.


On a recent Saturday morning students from the Soil, Water and Environmental Science (SWES) 454 class could be found working out at the new Campus Recreation Center. Not working out in the sense of exercising indoors, but working outdoors moving rocks and shoveling and spreading gravel to make rainwater harvesting more efficient at the site on East Sixth Street.


The students were fine-tuning a series of rainwater collection micro basins on the north and south sides of the building that are designed to water vegetation and prevent water from flowing into the street, said Amelia Kwong, a senior in molecular and cellular biology.


"As it rained, the water flowed to the end of the basin, filled up, and went into the street," Kwong said. "We are fixing that."


"We are doing passive water harvesting, not collecting the water for later use," said Stephanie Hunn, a senior in natural resources and wildlife conservation management. "The basins navigate the water as it falls, so it can be used by plants. This cuts down on water running off into the streets."


The students shoveled gravel around large rocks at the bottom of the basins to reduce soil erosion from running water and maximize the benefit of keeping rainwater on nearby plants, Hunn said.


Class participants must spend 20 hours on field project work, said Travis Borrillo, a senior in environmental science.


"It gives us hands-on experience. It institutionalizes what we are learning," he said. "You learn how to make the landscaping natural."


The hands-on aspect is a vital part of the educational experience, said James J. Riley, associate professor of soil, water and environmental science who teaches SWES 454.


"I want them to see the details you don't get from the textbook or a drawing," Riley said. "We want them to see what is involved in how you apply the objectives in the textbook on a real basis in the field and by doing that, they will be in a better position to design their own project and studies later in the semester."


"We talk about it in class and actually implement it," Hunn said as she shoveled gravel into a wheelbarrow. "It's not just staring at pictures."


In many cases students fieldwork is based on designs from the class the previous semester, Riley said.


"I think some of the benefits specifically of the hands-on work is seeing how what they might learn in a text book applies directly in the field. So they actually learn hands-on how to do things like set elevations for spillways and basins and other things that they would have a hard time learning about in a class directly," said Grant McCormick, a UA campus planner who works with professors and students on campus projects.


Such student fieldwork benefits the UA campus, and helps attract new students with an interest in sustainability.


One example is the UA Visitor Center, which features gutters that collect rainwater, storage cisterns and micro basins where the water is retained and used for plants, Riley said. The facility also features solar panels for power.


The results of many other student projects dot the campus.


"You'll see around the campus there are a number of places with signs that describe what went on as far as water harvesting or solar energy use and all of that," Riley said. "That adds again to the image of campus to someone arriving here and saying, ‘Oh, this is a sustainably alert campus here, so that they are really looking at that here.' And I think that brings about looking into what classes might be available that would support that type of actions."


The UA campus will remain an outdoor laboratory for students in sustainability courses, McCormick said.


"In terms of other locations on campus, there really is no shortage of opportunities for that sort of retrofit type of intervention. There are a lot of areas where water had been designed to shed off of a site onto a street and so we could find ways to harvest that water, hold it, and make it into a resource," he said.


"There is an area over by the Fine Arts building that (SWES 454) may take a look at later in the semester. There are a number of areas along Fourth Street where a number of projects have already been implemented that we are also looking at, where the building is elevated above the street and there is a lot of runoff from the building and it is creating erosion. So there are a number of areas like that we could look at."

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