Hydrogeology Laboratory Improvement for 
Enhancing Undergraduate Teaching and 
Research in Water Sciences (0088170)

Mohammad Z. Iqbal
Dept. of Earth Science
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa 50613


1. Major Research and Education Activities of the Project:
This project has three components:
a) Lab activities with an ion chromatography (IC) system 
(purchased with NSF money)
b) Lab activities with a groundwater simulation model, and
c) Field activities at an on-campus monitoring well site.

The above three components are tied together to enhance undergraduate teaching and research in water sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. The NSF provided half of the money needed to buy the IC system in a way to support experiential learning of students in hydrologic sciences. The following activities have been conducted since the beginning of the project in June 2001:

i) An IC system (DX 120 model) was purchased in June of 2001. The machine installation was completed by the end of July 2001. In August, tech personnel from Dionex Corporation came to campus to give me a full-day training on machine calibration and PeakNet software programming. By the end of August (2001), I was knowledgeable about the analytical procedures and the machine was ready for use by the students.

ii) The proposed project was conducted by involving students in 4 courses, namely Physical Geology (870:031; fall 2001, spring 2002, and fall 2002), Environmental Hydrology (870:173g; spring 2002), Hydrogeology (870:175g; spring 2003) and Undergraduate Research in Earth Science (870:180; summer 2002, fall 2002, and spring 2003). The activities in Physical Geology were similar in fall and spring semesters. Following is a brief description of the activities performed by the students.

Physical Geology:

A total of 75 students in the fall 2001, 80 students in the spring 2002, and 75 students in the fall 2002 took part in this project. In order to enhance their understanding of ground water, two new lab exercises were introduced to the class, which included two weeks of water related activities (2 hour session/week). Because this is a freshman/sophomore level class, the main goal was to develop scientific thinking skills of general education students. The new labs are titled ‘ground water contamination, Part I’ and ‘ground water contamination, Part II’. The students were divided into several groups. They used a ground water simulation system, some ion tracers, several on-campus monitoring wells, and the chromatography system to understand the concept of water pollution.

The activities were conducted in the following steps

Step 1: The students were given a 45 minutes lecture on groundwater and surface water concepts followed by discussions.

Step 2: The students were given written exercises dealing with Darcy flow concepts. They calculated stream discharge, measured porosity/permeability, estimated groundwater resources, and studied the mechanisms of contaminant transport, etc. They constructed flow nets and answered questions on water quality issues.

Step 3: Activities with the Simulation System: The students injected dye tracers, and bromide and chloride-tagged water into the piezometers of the simulation system and then discharged water through the pumping wells. They simulated water sampling from the wells, the leaky lagoon, and from the stream. Subsequently, they analyzed the water in the IC system to understand the hydrologic link among groundwater wells, rivers, and land sources of pollution. They estimated groundwater velocity in both the upper unconfined and the lower confined aquifers by tracking the travel paths of the colored dyes. They also measured hydraulic gradient of the water table in the simulation system.

Step 4: Activities at the monitoring well site: The students went to the on-campus monitoring well site and collected water samples from the wells. They used a depth indicator to measure the depth to water table and then developed a flow net in the vicinity of the well site. Then based on the flow net, they answered questions regarding well contamination. They collected water samples from the two deep wells and analyzed them on-site for pH, TDS, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. The students were then given a tour of the nearby Dry Run Creek followed by discussions. All samples collected from the wells and from the stream were later analyzed for inorganic ions by using the newly purchased ion chromatography system.

Step 5: Activities with the chromatography system: The students were given a general orientation of the ion chromatography system. All water samples were subsequently analyzed by ion chromatography. The students observed as the PI injected and scanned the artificially contaminated samples. As the detection peaks appeared on the computer monitor, they were discussed. The students were asked critical questions, and then discussions continued until reasonable answers were found.

Finally, the students went back to their classroom and worked on more exercises dealing with ground water and surface water resources.

Environmental Hydrology:

Eight students of this class participated in a 2-month long project during the spring semester of 2002. Six of them were seniors and 2 were graduate students. They were divided into 4 groups and assigned a project on temporal variation in water quality in a part of the Cedar River Watershed in Iowa. Four (4) spots were selected for this purpose, such as Dry Run Creek north branch (spot 1), Dry Run Creek south branch (spot 2), combined flow of the Dry Run North and South (spot 3), and the Cedar River main channel (spot 4). They collected surface water samples from these spots once a week for 8 weeks, and then analyzed the samples by ion chromatography. Additionally, they measured some parameters on-site, such as water temperature, pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), and Conductivity. The students then analyzed the water samples for chloride, sulfate, and nitrate. They compiled the data and constructed graphs to show the temporal variations in these parameters. In the classroom setting, each group was given an opportunity to share their results with other groups and make a short presentation of their findings. We all discussed how land use practices could change the quality of surface water. We also tried to identify the sources of contaminants in the water.

Chromatographic analysis: All samples were fully analyzed by the students. They did the sample preparation, machine calibration, and data recording.


Five students of this class participated in a short hydrologic project during the spring semester of 2003. Four of them were undergraduate seniors and one was a master’s student. The primary focus of this project was spatial variation in water quality in a small watershed. They went to four (4) spots in the Cedar River Watershed of Iowa, namely Dry Run Creek north branch (spot 1), Dry Run Creek south branch (spot 2), combined flow of the Dry Run North and South (spot 3), and the Cedar River main channel (spot 4). They collected surface water samples from these spots and then analyzed the samples by ion chromatography for nitrate, chloride, and sulfate. Additionally, they measured some parameters on-site, such as water temperature, pH, Dissolved Oxygen, Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), and Conductivity. In the classroom setting, each of the students was given an opportunity to share their results with others and make remarks about their findings. We all discussed how the local land use practices could cause the water quality to change from one place to another. We also tried to identify the sources of contaminants in the water.

Undergraduate Research in Earth Science:

Five undergraduate students (4 in geology, 1 in biology) were involved in this hydrology project as independent study students. This was a collaborative research effort with the team already working on an externally funded project (funded by Iowa Carver Trust Fund) called Iowa’s Lakes and Wetlands Studies. These five students while working on their lakes and wetlands project expanded their field area and collected additional water samples to analyze by the ion chromatography system and understand the area hydrology. They used the ion chromatography system quite extensively to gain analytical skills.

2. Major findings resulting from these activities:

Student learning of hydrologic processes was the primary focus of this project. Numerous analytical instruments were made available to them to make the learning process smooth and easy. Some of the findings in this project are discussed below.

Four survey questions were given to the Physical Geology students to assess the success of the NSF project activities. These were general education students most of whom did not take any geology courses before. This course is also the most important recruiting class in the Earth Science Department. I decided to give the survey in this class because any success with the hydrologic activities in this class would somewhat guarantee success in the entire water science curriculum in the Department. Sixty-two (62) students returned the survey. The results of the survey are shown below:

The quantitative exercises on Darcys Law, and the observed and average linear velocity were helpful to understand groundwater flow principles.

Strongly agree: 24%

Agree: 70

Undecided: 6

Disagree: none

Strongly disagree: none

The groundwater flow simulation system helped me understand aquifer properties and understand how contaminants move through rocks.

Strongly agree: 48%

> Agree: 52%

Undecided: none

Disagree: none

Strongly disagree: none

The exercises on water table profile helped me understand the interactions between groundwater and surface water (such as streams and springs).

Strongly agree: 19%

Agree: 66%

Undecided: 15%

Disagree: none

Strongly disagree: none

The homework assignment on flow-nets and the short tour of the on-campus monitoring well site were helpful to visualize directions of contaminant movement in aquifers under field condition.

Strongly agree: 27%

Agree: 47%

Undecided: 18%

Disagree: 6%

Strongly disagree: 2%

The above results indicate that the activities conducted in this class were quite successful in enhancing the students understanding of hydrologic processes.

Based on the discussions with the students, their presentations, and the given exams in the classes the following conclusions were made from this project:

Hands-on activities can considerably enhance student learning.

Students learned that groundwater and surface water are dynamically balanced and these valuable resources can be contaminated by human activities.

Visuals play a key role in a constructivists’ classroom.

Students learned that water quality in an aquifer could vary over time.

Exposure to analytical procedure can significantly add to the students’ understanding of scientific concepts.

Experiential learning of students can change their previously held misconceptions.

3. Opportunities for Training and Development Provided by the Project:

Ten upper-level undergraduate students and 3 graduate students received full training on operating hydrologic instruments, water sampling protocol and on-site chemical analysis, programming and calibrating ion chromatography system, and hydrologic data analysis. None of these students were ever exposed to any hydrologic instrument. About half of them expressed interests in pursuing career in water sciences. The instruments in which they received training are: pH meter, TDS meter, Dissolved Oxygen meter, water table depth finder, groundwater bailer, stream flow meter, sediment grabber, LaMotte water sampler (surface water from desired depths), soil moisture meter, and ion chromatography system (DX-120). They also used various ion-testing strips on-site. Forty-six K-12 teachers received training on hydrologic sampling protocol, and on-site chemical analysis. They used all instruments described in (a) above except the ion chromatography system. Seventy-five freshman and sophomore students learned how to measure water-table depths, how to conduct tracer experiments in simulated aquifers and then collect water samples. I myself received the benefit of professional development by way of increasing teaching effectiveness in undergraduate classes. Five independent study students received full training on the ion chromatography system.

4. Outreach Activities This Project Has Undertaken:

Geology of Iowa for Teachers Workshop: An Iowa K-12 teachers’ workshop, sponsored by the Iowa Limestone Producers Association (ILPA), was hosted by the Earth Science Dept. at UNI from June 23 to June 29, 2002, and again from June 22 to June 29, 2003. The workshop participants were involved in this NSF project in a one-day long hydrology activity schedule in order to disseminate the experiential learning methods to other teaching institutions in Iowa. This was an effective professional development experience for teachers. The workshop provided science content instruction that can be used as an alternative to traditional pedagogy. The teachers learned through hand-on activities and took the procedural concepts to their classroom. There were 22 participants in 2002 and 24 participants in 2003 who carried out one-day projects along the Dry Run Creek and the Cedar River main channel. The basic format of the project was very similar to the project conducted by the Environmental Hydrology class (discussed above).

b. Studies in Iowa Water Quality Issues: The Environmental Programs of the University of Northern Iowa sponsored a K-16 teachers’ workshop on campus from June 16-20, 2003. The learning theory of the workshop was based on constructivism. The general activity plan allowed teachers to learn by incorporating new knowledge into their own existing conceptual framework. The participants were involved in the NSF project by scheduling one-day long hydrology activities. The project included in-class exercises, and outdoor activities with wells and stream channels. The teachers from Iowa and surrounding states came to learn new methods in hydrology that could be incorporated into their own curriculum.

The results obtained through this project were presented at the following professional conferences:

1. Iqbal, M.Z., 2003. Using an on-campus monitoring well site to increase teaching effectiveness in hydrology courses. [abst] Iowa Academy of Science Annual Meeting, Des Moines, Iowa, April 25 - 26, 2003. Program Abstracts, p. 40.

2. Iqbal, M.Z., 2003. Experiential learning opportunities in a water science curriculum at the undergraduate level, Geological Society of America, Kansas City, Missouri, March 24-25, 2003, Abstracts with Programs, p. 17.