December 1, 2023
Story by Joe Vinduska and Amanda Aliband
Photos by Joe Vinduska
The Great Bend Prairie aquifer provides water to approximately 130,000 people through public water systems and an additional 33,000 people from private wells. The Clean Water Act is used to regulate public water systems, but the use of water from private water wells remains unregulated. In 2016, a research study showed that the nitrate levels were higher for 20 of 21 wells tested in the Great Bend Prairie aquifer during the 1970s and 1980s. The research study by Dr. Matthew Kirk, A Geology Professor from Kansas State University (KSU), showed increased nitrate levels, which was determined to be most likely from the use of fertilizers.
Knowing that additional groundwater testing would provide beneficial insight and being a longtime, passionate educator, Dr. Kirk found a way to not only conduct the much-needed research but also to create an opportunity for students from different colleges to collaborate while they learned.
Barton Community College students worked alongside students from KSU and Dodge City Community College on a grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the KSU Geology Department to evaluate well water in central Kansas. The collaborative effort is known as the Groundwater Geopaths project and, in addition to Dr. Kirk, the effort is led by Dr. Amanda Alliband, Dr. Helene Avocat, Ms. Sherry Rogers, and Mr. Richard Sloan.
At the end of August, the students met at KSU for a one-day training session and to tour the college campus. The students were introduced to the importance of evaluating the water quality in aquifers, and they were shown how to collect the water samples when they go out into the field.
In September, the students reached out to random well owners in five different counties requesting to sample their water for analysis. The students then split up into teams to take samples of the water, which were then analyzed for nitrate concentrations, pH levels, and other standard water quality parameters.
Barton student Quentin Bickham said he was excited to participate in this project because he understands the importance of the research.
"I believe this project is important because we are working to preserve our water quality, but it also promotes this type of research and studies to students,” he said. “We got a taste of what we can do to benefit our communities through STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It inspired us and showed us the impact we can make.”
Bickham said the hands-on nature of the project was helpful to really understand how the research is conducted from start to finish.
“My favorite part was probably the collecting of the samples out in the field,” he said. “It was very nice to see how welcoming the well owners were to us and our cause. It was also pretty impactful to collect the samples ourselves instead of just running numbers for something we don’t get to interact with.”
Collaboration was a root priority for this project, and Barton student Katherine Bruning said rubbing elbows with other STEM students was a bright spot for her, and she was excited to participate in a project she knew had considerable implications in groundwater research and STEM activity overall.
“The research we did with water showed us an example of the water situation across the world and gave us the experience to do further research, even if it is in a different field,” she said. “I loved taking samples with my team. We had wonderful conversations and learned a lot together and from each other. STEM is the backbone of everything. We can't have anything without STEM, let alone any advancements in life. Geopaths was a wonderful experience, and I would strongly recommend to any college student to apply and gain experience.”
In addition to valuable experience, the students were awarded a $3,000 scholarship for their participation in the grant. This project also provides exposure to the STEM fields. This is an ongoing project, and interested students may apply in the spring.
To learn more, please contact Barton Chemistry Instructor Amanda Alliband at firstname.lastname@example.org or (620) 792-9330). To learn more about the project, how to get involved, or the results of the research, visit https://heleneavocat.wixsite.com/groundwater-geopaths.