By Andrea Frye
In 2005 Dr. Carmen Agouridis, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering, started a special problems class at the University of Kentucky to confront the issue of stream restoration and its lack of educational opportunities. There were, and still are, few college-level programs where stream restoration skills are taught, however, there is a large demand for students with such skills. Five years later the class is still going strong and the impact is bigger than ever. From the success of her class Agouridis has opened doors into her own research hoping to make a difference in the Commonwealth’s environment.
The course BAE 532, in the College of Engineering’s biosystems and agricultural engineering department, Introduction to Stream Restoration is an introduction to the principles of fluvial geomorphology for application in restoring impaired streams, but the class is more than textbook reading and lectures. Topics in the hands-on course include channel formation processes, stream assessment, sediment transport, in-stream structures, the Rosgen stream classification system, erosion control, habitat, and monitoring with special emphasis placed on strategies for team building and restoration planning.
While the class is mostly open to biosystems and civil engineering students it, “has many interesting aspects that you do not typically see in an engineering course, which I think is one of its appeals, aside from the fact that it is in a hot topic area,” says Agouridis. Other majors such as mining engineering, forestry, natural resources conservation management and geography also enroll in the course.
However, BAE 532 is not your average course: it is a stepping stone to employment after graduation. Agouridis brings in guest lecturers in the field for her students to network with practitioners, invites employers to come to the student group presentations, and provides students with the experience and skills to aid them in a field demanding for students who have knowledge of stream restoration such as private consulting firms as well as state and federal agencies that practice land management and conservation such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and United States Forest Service.
Due to the high demand for experienced individuals, field work is vital to the success of Agouridis’ class. It allows her students to develop skills in collecting their own stream assessment data and teamwork. It also provides a sound understanding of the fundamentals of stream restoration that cannot be accomplished in the classroom alone. For Agouridis, “it is critical that the students get outside to practice the concepts and techniques taught in the course. I make an effort to have about half of the class taught outside.”
Alongside field work in importance is the small group project which allows students to investigate a specific component of stream restoration. While the project is part of the course grade, it is often used as a writing sample to highlight the students’ abilities in the interview process with potential employers. The purpose of these group projects, field work and lectures is to provide the students with the education and opportunity to outline a restoration plan with the goal of restoring the stream’s hydraulic and habitat functions. The students also design a monitoring program to evaluate the success of a restoration project in order to ensure that they are making a physical difference in the environment, not just a theoretical one.
Making a physical difference is not just a motto in Agouridis’ stream restoration class, but it is a motto she carries out of the classroom to the outdoors, to the public, and into her own research. Dr. Agouridis’ current projects focusing on stream restoration include the Guy Cove Project, Cane Run Watershed Assessment Project, and designing stream restoration tools, but within all of these projects there is one common theme: education.
The Guy Cove project was recently featured in the Lexington Herald-Leader on January 31. One of Agouridis’ goals for this project is to “establish an outdoor classroom for demonstrating design principles, construction techniques, and measurement of system performance as well as educate a myriad of stakeholders including consulting and mining engineers, land reclamation design professionals, the regulatory community, environmental advocacy groups, and students.”
Guy Cove is a large stream restoration project that was created by the University of Kentucky in cooperation with a number of agencies such as the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kentucky Division of Water, U.S. EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources as a response to the problem of stream restoration in relation to post-mined lands, a problem often found in Kentucky, by recreating a headwater stream system.
In this research project Dr. Agouridis works alongside fellow professors Dr. Richard Warner, who focuses on sediment and erosion control as well as water infiltration issues, and forestry professor Dr. Chris Barton who focuses on re-vegetation and water treatment of the seepage from the under drain. The research team is currently in the monitoring phase for geomorphology, hydrology, water quality, and vegetation, with very promising initial results.
Another project that Agouridis is currently working on, with Dr. Lindell Ormsbee of the civil engineering department, is the Cane Run Watershed Assessment and Restoration Project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With increased levels of urbanization occurring throughout Kentucky, it is imperative that effective science-based management strategies be developed for urban and urban-fringe streams. The Cane Run watershed assessment will help address these issues by providing much needed scientific and educational information, serving as a catalyst for restoration efforts originating at the federal, state and local levels.
For Agouridis that catalyst is also education and starts with the undergraduate and graduate students where “undergraduate students assist project PIs primarily with water quality assessment through sample collection and analysis and with geomorphic assessment through field surveys [and] graduate students work in watershed model development and stream restoration design tool development.”
But the research and education of stream restoration does not stop with the students in the College of Engineering. Through the campus wide community service event known as UK FUSION, any UK student has the opportunity to dig hands first into the Cane Run project and become a vital part of Agouridis’ research as well as leave an impact on the Commonwealth’s environment.
Although the Cane Run project is still in early stages of development, the research team anticipates that through their assessment of pathogen and sediment pollution, many positive outcomes can be seen in the near future. Within the next three years the team hopes that its research will lead to the development of a watershed-based plan, including specific management recommendations, to address non-point sources of pollution, the development of tools for assessment and restoration design of streams located in the Inner Bluegrass region of Kentucky, the development of educational materials targeting specific audiences (i.e. middle-school, high-school, college, urban, rural) and increased educational opportunities (i.e. field days, tours, science labs).
UK’s biosystems students are learning how to provide assessments and strategies for stream restoration, but soon enough through Agouridis’ research projects at Guy Cove and Cane Run, the public will be just as aware and influential in change through their own educational experiences outside the classroom, on site field trips, and hands-on experiences.