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Student working with science technology outdoors

The culmination of four years

Environmental studies majors prove themselves through capstone work.

Carol Morel ’17 felt like a “real scientist” this summer.

While gathering research for her Wofford environmental studies capstone project, she was in Arizona modeling impacts of sulfuric acid heap leach solutions on groundwater in the Cienega Creek watershed.

“I chose this topic for its immediate relevance to the community,” says Morel. “Hubday Minerals is proposing to build a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. Some are opposed to its development (Save the Santa Ritas, for example) ... others are proponents of independence (from the reliance on other countries for copper) and the jobs it will bring.”

Morel sees her role in the drama unfolding as that of “objective scientist” working to understand the impact the mine could have. She conducted fieldwork, collected and tested samples from wells and precipitation buckets, spoke with land owners about her research, educated herself on the hydrogeology of the area and used a computer program to model a variety of scenarios.

Morel, a major in chemistry and environmental studies from Fort Mill, S.C., will present her findings at the University of Arizona’s undergraduate research conference. 

“The experience affirmed my plan to go to grad school. I also got to experience the beauty of Tucson and meet some amazing people,” she says. “I gained invaluable experience in conducting and presenting research, and my mentor was incredibly helpful in finding professors at other colleges and universities who are doing similar research.”

Morel’s experience is just one example of why Wofford’s Environmental Studies Department requires a capstone project. This semester 13 other students will share similar experiences as part of their major in environmental studies.

“One of the things I love about our capstone project is the way that students can focus deeply on something that they may have encountered only briefly in a class or while studying abroad,” says Dr. Kaye Savage, department chair. “As their mentors, we faculty also get to learn a great deal while helping students navigate the research process and project execution.” 

For Andrew Fowler ’17, the capstone experience is personal.

“I chose my capstone because water makes me happy. My best memories are always the ones that involve water — whether it’s going fishing with my granddad, learning to surf with my dad or putting the boat in the river and cruising around with family meeting up with various aunts, uncles, cousins, half cousins and friends along the ride,” says Fowler, a Spanish and environmental studies major from Bluffton, S.C. “Because of my respect and love for our waters and coast, I felt it a duty to do something to protect them.”

Fowler is focusing his capstone efforts on storm-water management through the use of rain gardens. The project has the benefit of addressing issues of water quality, flooding, pollution and erosion. 

“Much of the surface of our community is composed of impermeable surfaces, meaning buildings, parking lots and concrete or asphalt roads that rain cannot penetrate,” says Fowler. “The basic idea of a rain garden is to give this excess water a place to naturally gather and seep into the soil to support plants that thrive in wet environments.”

Fowler has been collecting native plants all summer and researching different areas for the installation of his rain garden. He’s also excited because the rain garden has the added benefit of beautification. 

Alex Hoots ’17, a member of the Wofford women’s soccer team, selected a project that incorporates both athletics and sustainability, particularly in the area of waste management.

“Water and fertilizers are both often required to maintain playing fields,” says Hoots, an environmental studies major from Winston-Salem, N.C. “Runoff generated from this can affect local watersheds. What would happen if we switched to using reclaimed water from treatment facilities for irrigation purposes? It’s something to consider.”

Hoots also is studying actual waste — from student-athletes (for example, cups, medical tapes, headbands) and from spectators (concession waste). 

“I’m doing a financial analysis that compares the costs of the current system to the costs associated with replacing disposable products with more sustainable products. I understand that these suggestions have an economic impact as well,” she says.

Matt Aurednik ’17, a student-athlete on the men’s soccer team and an environmental studies major from Lexington, S.C., has built a tiny house as his environmental studies capstone project. The plan is to have Wofford students take turns living in the 77-square-foot house, a space much smaller than the typical Wofford residence hall room.

“I’m hoping to add to the tiny-house conversation by allowing people to experience it for themselves,” says Aurednik. “I’ll ask students who live in the house to share their impressions, both positive and negative. Whatever the outcome, I hope to inspire college students to consider the benefits of a smaller footprint.”

While tiny houses often cost upwards of $20,000 to build, Aurednik has used reclaimed items as much as possible to keep his cost to less than $2,000. Amenities will include central heat and air, a full-sized bed, whisky-barrel shower, composting toilet, kitchen sink and table, a propane stove and as much storage as he can creatively tuck into the house.

Aurednik has done the construction work himself, with some help from his friends and 11-year-old brother. “I’ve become a YouTube and Google expert,” he says.

Savage notes that she is “amazed and inspired each year“ by the diversity, creativity, personal meaning and ambitious goals of the projects. “It’s a way for students to bump up against limits, and then push as hard as they can to meet their goals. When they’re finished, they’ve usually earned the pride they feel.” 

Ben Thomas ’16, an environmental studies and sociology major from Roebuck, S.C., says that the environmental studies capstones also offer an opportunity to connect the past, present and future of the community — one of the things that drew him to the major in the first place.

Thomas came to Wofford planning to become a doctor, but after one environmental studies class he changed his mind and his major. His project involves revising a geomorphic study of Spartanburg County originally completed by the Soil Conversation Service in the 1930s. 

“My project mentor, Dr. Terry Ferguson ’75, and I are studying how erosion and deposition are taking place in the watershed, and that’s important because it’s an indication of how dynamic the land is. For example, how has agriculture affected erosion,” explains Thomas. “World War II happened and the study was lost. We’re filling in the blanks.”

According to Thomas, the section of Ferguson Creek that they are studying has shifted eight feet east and deepened by two feet since the 1940s. Along the way Thomas says he learned how to design and conduct an experiment, think critically, work in 100-degree heat and prepare research for publishing. 

Other environmental studies capstones for the fall include analyzing trash, researching sustainable transportation, determining the biodiversity of mushrooms, studying environmental horse keeping and assessing the value of walkability in downtown areas.

Environmental studies students propose their capstone projects as juniors, complete them as seniors in the fall and present the results publicly during the spring semester as part of the ENVS senior seminar. According to Savage, “It’s a great opportunity for others to learn about the interesting work that these students have accomplished, and for the students to get feedback about the process that they have engaged in so deeply.” 

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89, Fall 2016