Geology program gets grant for research

Two faculty members from Western Carolina University’s geology program have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant to use in examining the learning benefits of group undergraduate research while also investigating how water is routed through the ground in Western North Carolina.

The three-year federal grant of $199,099 will fund the project “Testing the Benefits of Undergraduate Research-Based Learning at Various Curricular Levels Using Authentic Research Questions in Hydrogeomorphology.” The project will be directed by Dave Kinner, assistant professor of geology, and Mark Lord, professor of geology and head of WCU’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resources.

Undergraduate research has long been emphasized in WCU’s geology program, with a requirement added about a decade ago that ensures that students complete an individual or group research project prior to graduation, Kinner said.

“The grant will allow us to ask the question, ‘How do students at all levels of the geology curriculum benefit from research-based learning?’” he said. “We hope to demonstrate how these special research opportunities can be embedded into the learning experience of a wide range of students.”

Starting this school year, students in select introductory through upper-level courses will be conducting group research on the hydrology and surface geology of the region as part of their classes. Supplementing the research activities of both Kinner and Lord, the students will examine how water moves through the soils, sediment and bedrock of the mountains.

“These topics are directly important to Western North Carolina,” Kinner said. “Fast pathways near the surface can lead to flooding, soil erosion and landslides, while slower and deeper pathways favor recharging groundwater resources that many people in the region use for drinking water.”

Research fellows will be hired to mentor students and help manage a research station located on WCU’s Millennial Initiative property that includes more than 40 groundwater wells drilled by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Electronic instrumentation and infrastructure will allow students to examine the quality of ground and surface water, conduct experiments with a rainfall simulator to see how quickly the ground absorbs water, and use stream and groundwater measurements to determine how quickly water moves through the ground, Kinner said.

For more information about the project, contact Kinner at 828-227-3821 or