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Eleven Eastern Kentucky University students, accompanied by two faculty members, were among the 74 volunteers who fanned out across eastern Kentucky Sept. 10-11 to test water quality as part of the annual Big Dip project.

The EKU team, representing a variety of academic disciplines, was sponsored by the Appalachian Studies and Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship programs and was joined by other volunteers, including students from KCTCS community and technical college campuses in Hazard, Cumberland and Whitesburg. The service learning component of the work coincided with the 9/11 National Day of Service, and several AmeriCorps VISTAs also participated.

“Water quality in eastern Kentucky has been severely compromised by a long history of extractive industries,” said Dr. Alice Jones, director of the Appalachian Studies and Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship programs at EKU. “While many citizens know their water is ‘bad,’ they have little sense of agency to address problems or find solutions. We hope to add to an existing body of research to analyze change in eastern Kentucky’s water systems over time. We also hope that the project will help provide citizens a sense of agency in resolving problems in their own communities and a deeper understanding of the value and applicability of STEM education, open EKU and community college students’ eyes to career paths previously unrecognized, and encourage the community college students to continue their educations at EKU.”

Led by EKU faculty supervisors Dr. Jennifer Wies from the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, and Kelly Watson from the Department of Geosciences, the EKU students sampled water primarily in Perry, Harlan and Letcher counties. They also spent one night at the new research facility and bunkhouse at EKU-owned Lilley Cornett Woods Appalachian Ecological Research Station.

“The students gained valuable hands-on experience as they learned more about the natural resources and assets of Appalachian Kentucky,” Jones said. “Through this applied science experience in the real world, they were able to have a direct and real impact in our service region.”

Jones said that data from the original Big Dip (2006-08) and the 2016 water sampling will be shared among the participating institutions for analysis in October. Students in several community college science and math classes will analyze the results, looking for trends, and English students will develop reports of the results to be disseminated by affected communities, hopefully in early December.

The collaboration between EKU and the KCTCS institutions “grew out of three ‘streams’ that met at a confluence at the right time,” Jones explained. “It was the 10-year anniversary of the original Big Dip project, so I was looking for a way to go out and resample some portion of those original sites for the longitudinal analysis. The original Big Dip was largely organized by an Office of Surface Mining AmeriCorpsVISTA volunteer, Evan Smith. Not only did he spearhead a massive water collection effort in the summer of 2006, he laid the groundwork for what later became Headwaters Inc., a non-profit watershed organization in Letcher County.” (Today Smith serves on the board of Headwaters, which contributed volunteers to this year’s Big Dip, along with Pathfinders of Perry County.)

Jones also has collaborated with Jenny Williams, who teaches English at HCTC and is active with Pathfinders, on a series of service learning projects over the past three years. “Each of those classes worked with Pathfinders to analyze some aspect of the local ecology and economy, including overnight field trips to the community and presenting results to community members and public officials. Through those projects, Jenny and I developed a great working relationship and were looking for a way to get more community college students involved in similar activities.”

Williams was then asked by KCTCS system President Jay Box to initiate a service learning program designed to attract more students to STEM disciplines, encourage faculty to incorporate service learning into their courses, and support the KCTCS system’s strategic objective of helping more students go on to earn four-year degrees.

Now, Jones noted, a “STEM Career Climbing Wall” is envisioned to inspire students from the region’s community and technical colleges to pursue science and engineering degrees at four-year schools by involving them in community-based science service-learning projects focused on local water quality.

The project pilots an institutional infrastructure to connect students at “coal country community colleges” (CCCC) and EKU. The next step, Jones added, is to seek funding from public and private sources to continue the collaboration between EKU and the Coal-Country Community Colleges that will support community-based research, STEM education, and service learning at all partner institutions while improving understanding of eastern Kentucky water health and ecosystems.