Summer Research Scholars Launch Freshwater@UW Activities

Freshwater@UW Summer Research Scholars arrived at UW-Madison on May 28 for orientation before heading off to conduct research under the mentorship of faculty, staff and graduate students. The 35 undergraduates hailed from 27 universities in Wisconsin and around the country. 

Students learned about water research in Wisconsin. They also spent time together, building a strong and supportive network of water research peers.

Summer research scholars on the R/V Neeskay.
Summer research scholars on the R/V Neeskay.

The week kicked off with a speaker’s event. Who better to introduce them to lake and river ecology than Dr. Grace Wilkinson, UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology, and Dr. Kathi Jo Jankowski, USGS? They learned about the Freshwater Collaborative and their place in the bigger picture of water research from Dr. Marissa Jablonski and Dr. Alison Mikulyuk.

Later, the students took a water-themed tour of the Chazen Art Museum. They also learned about the First Nations of Wisconsin during the First Nations Cultural Landscape Tour. The tour provided a place-based introduction into the 14,000+ years of human history along the shores of Lake Mendota.

Summer research scholars conducted several lab activities.
Summer research scholars conducted several lab activities.

The next day was all about watersheds (everything flows downstream!). Activities involved four locations in the Madison area that highlight challenges facing the Yahara Watershed. A visit to Dane County Discovery Farm taught them about soil health and farmer-led councils. They helped out with invasive species control in the Lakeshore Reserve on campus. At a “sand boil” at Franklin Springs, undergraduates did sampling and scope work from the Center for Limnology’s Lake Mendota dock.

Students capped off orientation week with a more hands-on activities at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. Activities included kayaking in the Milwaukee Harbor, lab work in the fish labs, and a trip on the R/V Neeskay.

Kayaking in the Milwaukee Harbor
Kayaking in the Milwaukee Harbor was a big hit.

The students will present their research on Aug. 1 at the Summer Research Symposium at UW-Madison. Funding for the Freshwater@UW Summer Research Opportunities Program is provided by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Sea Grant, the UW Water Resources Institute, Water@UW-Madison, and the UW-Madison graduate school.

Written by Heidi Jeter, Freshwater Collaborative, and Alison Mikulyuk, Water@UW-Madison.

Undergrads Explore Freshwater Science in Western Wisconsin

Thirteen undergraduates from UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, and UW-Milwaukee took part in this year’s Freshwater Science Field Studies in Western Wisconsin course. Undergraduates spent two weeks exploring watersheds, contamination and restoration, and groundwater and surface waters throughout western Wisconsin.

Instructors from UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, and UW Oshkosh taught students field and laboratory skills needed to conduct freshwater research. During the two-week advanced course, students conduct a wide variety of applicable fieldwork to prepare them for the freshwater science workforce.

Highlights this year included:

  • visiting a boiling spring in River Falls
  • measuring water quality impacts from the impoundments on the Kinnickinnic River
  • evaluating groundwater flow conditions on the UW-Eau Claire campus

The data collected in Gilbert Creek in Menomonie will contribute to the Water Action Volunteers (WAV) stream monitoring program, a partnership between the WDNR and the UW–Madison Division of Extension that empowers volunteers to gather and share data to help natural resource managers in Wisconsin make decisions.

UW-Stout’s Center for Sustainable Communities Will Help Rural Communities Thrive

By Heidi Jeter, Freshwater Collaborative

Rural communities experienced widespread population decreases between 2010 and 2020 for the first time in history, impacting jobs, healthcare, education and other services.

Based in Menomonie, Wisc., UW-Stout is in a unique position to help strengthen Wisconsin’s rural communities. Since 2021, the university has received multiple grants from the Freshwater Collaborative to help faculty and students engage with and support local communities in western Wisconsin.

A key project helped to establish the Center for Sustainable Communities. This emerging center will identify opportunities for research, service learning, outreach, community involvement, and student experiences that strengthen environmental, social, and economic sustainability in rural areas.

One of the first research projects to fall under the Center’s umbrella is funded by a two-year, $175,000 Innovation Grant from the Universities of Wisconsin. A multidisciplinary team of UW-Stout faculty will build a network of eight sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, wind, soil moisture, heat and other factors. The data collected will help farmers make decisions about their crops and increase their profitability.

Faculty are also working with faculty at UW-Madison and Grassland 2.0 to create a learning hub around agriculture issues in the Red Cedar Basin. Grassland 2.0 is a collaborative group of farmers, researchers, and public and private sector leaders who focus on restorative agricultural process. Their goal is to work together to increase farmer profitability while also improving water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and climate resilience.

“The learning hub was proposed by our local community,” says Tina Lee, professor in the social science department who is helping to lead the Center and is working on the Innovation Grant. “We are getting community input from the agricultural sector on what the learning hub will look like.”

Faculty and students in river
Keith Gilland, left, and students in the Red Basin Monitoring Group evaluate the effects of trout stream and prairie restoration.

The Center will go beyond farming, however. Keith Gilland, an associate professor of biology, leads the Red Basin Monitoring Group funded by the Freshwater Collaborative.  He and his students work with Trout Unlimited, Prairie Enthusiasts and the City of Menomonie to evaluate the effects of trout stream and prairie restoration.

“There’s a big component of what we’ve done with the Red Cedar Basin that’s rooted in the idea that for healthy, thriving rural areas it’s not just about farms,” he says. “We also need healthy natural environments. We need recreational activities and places people want to go to spend time.”

Gilland is exploring ideas to expand his research and partnerships through the Center. He wants his research to improve conditions in Menomonie from an environmental standpoint. He also wants to involve more students so they can get hands-on experience that trains them for the workforce.

As the Center grows, it will become a central place where community members can tap into faculty expertise beyond water quality and create service-learning projects for students in a variety of areas from economics to healthcare to rural education.

“The goal is for people in the community to bring projects to us that they are interested in having done so that students could work on them,” Lee says. “This could become a one-stop shop for small communities in the area with a focus on improving both the natural environment and local economies.”

UW-River Falls Program Engages Youth in Water Science, Stewardship

By Heidi Jeter, Freshwater Collaborative

Offering 22 miles of world-class trout fishing and other recreational activities, the beloved Kinnickinnic River runs through the city of River Falls and the UW-River Falls campus. The community and the campus are invested in its health.

So, it was no surprise the Youth Water Stewards pilot program, funded by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, received a positive response from high school participants and community members.

The program was envisioned and led by Tovah Flygare, lecturer and sustainability specialist at UW-Fiver Falls, who is passionate about connecting people to water. Though not a scientist herself, she believes anyone can care for their local watershed.

Flygare worked closely with educators at Renaissance Charter Academy, a partner of the River Falls High School focused on individualized learning with support for student success. Many students express feelings of eco-anxiety and disconnectedness from their community. The goal was to help them to deepen their understanding of water science, future potential professions, and their community.

The pilot program engaged high schoolers in water science through basic water monitoring, data analysis and stewardship. Students also connected with university professors and students, local government and business representatives, and indigenous teachers.

During their coursework, students created or improved rain gardens, assisted in local erosion control projects, completed water monitoring projects, and learned about aspects of healthy water, including learning from indigenous teachers about species of vital importance to regional food and culture, such as wild rice.

Students participated in unique hands-on field trips.

“The outdoors experience for the entire pilot project was framed around field trips, hands-on learning and service-learning opportunities,” she says. “Every field trip seemed to be very positively received.”

In fact, the pilot program received such a positive reaction that the faculty received in-kind donations of time and expertise from the local Trout Unlimited chapter, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, and the city of River Falls.

The original funding was for one year, but because of the in-kind donations and the ability to leverage equipment used for another UW-River Falls project — the DAM Crew, which is also funded by the Freshwater Collaborative — Flygare was able to run the pilot for two years. Twenty-five high school students enrolled in the participating courses, and the field trips and speaker events were open to the entire high school and to UW-River Falls students.

The grant also supported two paid undergraduate positions to help with activities. Another four undergraduates volunteered their time.

Amber Rappl, who is majoring in biology and biotechnology at UW-River Falls, was the lead undergraduate mentor and educator. She facilitated educational workshops, organized field trips to local waterways, coordinated hands-on conservation projects, and provided guidance and support to students as they developed their understanding of water issues and implemented solutions in their communities.

As an undergraduate mentor, Amber Rappl enhanced her skills while encouraging others to get excited about science.

“My favorite part of this experience was seeing high school students get visibly excited about doing science,” she says. “Working closely with them, I witnessed their enthusiasm and passion for environmental stewardship grow, and I am proud to have played a role in fostering their commitment to protecting our freshwater resources.”

Another undergraduate helped the students create a rain garden around a city drain, and recent graduates who now work for the city led a service-learning project to address erosion.

Flygare says having undergraduate mentors was powerful. They shared what it was like to be a college student and made connections between the science and how students could use it to address real-world environmental problems.

“It was nice for the students to see a path from high school to college to a professional career working in water,” she says. “There were some ah-ha moments that were pretty special.”

Student Profile: Finding A Major That Sparks Joy

As a child in Chaska, Minn., Madeline Behrens loved rocks and minerals, animals and being outside, but her passion for the environment went dormant in high school when her focus changed to computer sciences courses.

She enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato, as a computer science major but quickly realized a career behind a desk wasn’t for her.

“It didn’t spark any joy in me,” says Behrens, who began looking at other options. “Environmental science and earth studies popped out at me. Reading through the classes sparked my passion for the environment again.”

She switched her major second semester. The following fall, a biology professor shared a flyer about summer internship opportunities through UW Oshkosh, which were supported by a Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin grant. Behrens was intrigued and reached out to Greg Kleinheinz, professor and director of UW Oshkosh’s Environmental Research & Innovation Center (ERIC), to learn more.

Behrens worked with the WDNR to inform beach closures.

“It sounded really cool. It would get me fieldwork and lab experience,” she says.

Behrens chose to intern with the marine debris and water quality monitoring group in Door County. She spent the summer with a team of six students, collecting water samples at about 40 beaches. They recorded E. coli levels and worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to put out advisories and beach closures when necessary. She also conducted well water testing for the public.

Behrens also spent time on the marine debris mitigation boat. The students removed about 6,300 pounds of trash, ranging from small plastic pieces and shotgun wadding to large items such as stoves, dishwashers, trashcan lids, and giant tractor tires.

The debris the students removed from Door County is just a fraction of the trash that makes its way into the water every season. Certain areas in Green Bay trapped large amounts of garbage daily. Behrens says it was sometimes disheartening to spend hours cleaning an area only to find more trash the next day, but overall, she felt good about her job.

“Someone needs to clean up debris to give people an idea of how much trash is in the water. Seeing the pictures and hearing the numbers of trash pulled from an area around you establishes more of a personal reason for caring about the environment,” she says. “One of the most important steps in the process of marine debris cleanup is bringing awareness to people. If people know the environmental effects of marine debris, maybe next time they will think twice before dumping trash off the side of their boat.”

In areas like Renard Island, formerly known as Kidney Island, trash accumulates in crevices and had to be removed by hand.

The summer research experience in Door County reinforced Behrens’ desire to work in environmental science. After learning that the retirement of two Mankato faculty might delay her ability to take key classes she would need to graduate, she transferred to UW Oshkosh.

“I liked the campus and the town,” she says. “The class list offered a lot of variety in the areas I’m interested in.”

Behrens is now in her first semester at UW Oshkosh and is pleased with her decision. In October, she presented her marine debris research at the Great Lakes Beach Association Conference. Next semester she hopes to work in the ERIC lab to gain additional hands-on experience — and she should graduate on time and ready for a career in water.

“I’m in a good spot and should finish in four years,” she says. “I’m not sure of my job path, so I’m taking a variety of environmental science classes. I’m leaning toward water quality but am also interested in toxicology.”  

Freshwater Collaborative funding helps to support UW Oshkosh’s efforts to hire multiple students each summer to conduct water-quality field research in Door and Manitowoc Counties, collect plastics and conduct microplastic research, and conduct well water testing at various locations, including the ERIC lab. Interested students should contact Greg Kleinheinz at Students from any university are welcome to apply.