slug test

This spring’s research group conducts a slug test: The slug, a heavy plastic cylinder connected to a rope, raises the water level in the well when lowered in. Then, researchers measure how quickly the water level drops back to its initial level as it flows back out into the surrounding aquifer.

 

On a pleasantly cool morning in late April, six Trinity University students conducted experiments on the ground—and water—beneath their feet, working alongside their professor and the Trinity alumnus.

Named for an influential Trinity geology professor, the Edward C. Roy, Jr. Groundwater Training Center is the brainchild of David Shiels, a 1983 Trinity graduate and hydrogeologist. The facility offers students the opportunity to conduct field work on a water-bearing aquifer, taking what they’ve learned in the classroom and putting it into practice.

Shiels and his wife of 35 years, Carol (a geological engineer), live and work on a 640-acre ranch near Kaufman, Texas, that has been in their family since 1851. The couple also runs their own environmental engineering and consulting company. Shiels always knew there was something special about the land. A stand of pecan trees, healthy and thriving even through seasons of drought, led him to suspect there was a source of subterranean water. He discussed his theory with geosciences professor Brady Ziegler, Ph.D., while on an alumni field trip. 

On Feb. 29, 2020, Shiels invited Ziegler to bring a group of Trinity students to observe as he had a well drilled on his land. Cold, clear water soon started to flow, confirming his prediction that an aquifer lurked below the surface. The trip took place the weekend before students left for spring break – and just as normal life came screeching to a halt. Because of the pandemic, students did not return to campus after the break. That Leap Day visit to Shiels’ land would be their last until April 2022.

Unparalleled experiential learning

Shiels drilled three more wells into the shallow, sandy formation, which Ziegler says presents the perfect introduction to working with a real aquifer. After finding that all four wells were saturated with water and interconnected, “I told Brady, ‘We hit the jackpot, buddy,’ Shiels recalls. “If I were a hydrogeology teacher, I’d want my kids out there collecting groundwater samples, crunching data, and actually doing the chemistry themselves. And that’s what they did all weekend long, sunup to sundown. 

Over the course of the weekend, the six students, working in small groups, conducted a variety of tests to measure the aquifer’s hydraulic conductivity—that is, how well water flows through it—as well as its chemical properties, such as dissolved oxygen, iron concentration, pH, and alkalinity. They were utilizing skills that they had learned throughout the semester in Ziegler’s hydrogeology class. “You can do math all day long,” says the assistant professor, “but when you get out into the field and actually start to see displacement in the well, it’s a unique experience.” 

Luke Stuart class of 2022, an environmental geosciences major from Lubbock agreed saying, “I hadn’t ever seen water pumped out of the ground, and honestly it was really spectacular.” 

The groundwater training center offers unmatched opportunities to engage in experiential learning, with clear and direct benefits for students’ postgraduate lives. “Most people coming out of bachelor’s programs have not done this kind of hands-on work before, so the fact that they have gives them a leg up in the job market,” says Ziegler, explaining that many entry-level jobs in the geosciences, such as working in environmental consulting or remediation, include field work.

Going forth and giving back 

The future looks bright for the groundwater training center. Shiels has plans to open the property to students from other colleges and universities, and possibly even emerging professionals from around the state. As he told his wife, “Staying in touch with young folks is going to keep us young. And what better young people than young geologists!” 

But he’s perhaps most excited about hosting the next group of hydrogeologists-in-training from his alma mater. “We had it so good at Trinity,” he says, fondly remembering his own years on campus. “Being in the middle of it all, learning how to live life. Giving back in this way helps me keep feeling those feelings.”

Shiels’ passion made a profound impact on how the students who visited in April approached the weekend. “His enthusiasm was infectious,” says Grout. “The field work wasn’t just something I had to get through; it was something I was excited to participate in.” Their professor likewise noted the alum’s impressive commitment to the University. “The fact that he paid, out of his own pocket, to create this place for students is remarkable,” says Ziegler. “David and Carol deserve a lot of credit.”

“Everybody has something to give besides money,” said Shiels. “For us, it’s this.” 

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