Project Description

Adaptation and implementation of a watershed model:
The French Creek Watershed Research Program at Allegheny College

We propose to establish the French Creek Watershed Research Program (FCWRP) at Allegheny College. This program will provide an exciting, cross-disciplinary link for natural science teaching that will stimulate intellectual vibrancy in both faculty and students. Our proposal builds upon the strengths of faculty across our natural science division (biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology) and takes a curricular approach to adapting and implementing field-based investigations across a regional watershed.

We propose to help students examine biological, chemical, hydrologic and geologic processes within the French Creek Watershed (FCW). We will expose our students to different sites within the watershed and examine specific natural science processes at a variety of spatial, temporal, and disciplinary scales. A suite of analytical instruments obtained by the project will provide students with experience in data collection, analysis and interpretation at all course levels. A website for the FCWRP will provide a means for faculty to design complementary field-investigations and establish critical course connections within the natural science curricula. By explicitly addressing connections across courses, students will be able to link their learning among classes and disciplines over the span of a college career.

The proposed project will consist of three components: 1) equipment acquisition; 2) curricular adaptation and implementation; and 3) development and dissemination of a watershed database. The project impacts more than 20 courses collectively offered among the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science and Geology. In addition to curricular benefits, the FCW Research Program will also enhance the caliber of collaborative student/faculty research across the natural science division.

Undergraduate science majors at Allegheny College will obtain: 1) improved field and laboratory experience at all course levels; 2) scientific skill development and critical thinking practice within a complex, regional setting; and 3) the opportunity to develop a multidisciplinary scientific perspective via the natural science curriculum. Graduates with these experiences should be at a competitive advantage as they pursue graduate study or employment in private industry, research, and/or regulatory sectors.

Goals and Objectives

Our primary goal is to develop an interdisciplinary approach to natural science coursework and research within the context of a regional watershed system. To accomplish this goal, four science departments within the college will work together to create the French Creek Watershed Research Program. The objectives of this program are to: 1) obtain and share new analytical equipment to strengthen field-based investigations in undergraduate science classes at all instruction levels; 2) enhance the caliber of student/faculty research within the College by means of increased analytical capability and accuracy; 3) create a program website, linked to a geographic information system (GIS), to provide access to natural science data collected during coursework and student/faculty research. This electronic resource will link a broad range of scientific information that spans boundaries traditionally defined by academic disciplines. Accordingly, faculty and students alike will have access to a comprehensive natural science data bank for use in classes, independent research, and required senior theses.

Detailed Project Plan

Over the last decade, educators and policy makers alike have identified two recurrent themes for improving undergraduate science education: 1) development of inquiry-based approaches to solve scientific problems (Bonwell and Eison 1991, Dunkhase and Penick 1991, Smith et al. 1995, AGU 1996); and 2) replacement of traditional (i.e. discipline-specific) academic approaches to natural science with an integrated earth-systems approach (NSF 1996, NRC 1996, 1997). Intensive instrumentation and investigation of a small (<50 km2), local watershed has become a successful model for active, interdisciplinary science inquiry in many undergraduate programs. We examined 13 undergraduate programs and have chosen the Burd Run Watershed model, developed by Shippensburg University (SU), for adaptation to the natural science curriculum at Allegheny College. The Burd Run model focuses on establishing a comprehensive spatial database for a small watershed to enhance interdisciplinary training among three departments (Biology, Geography-Earth Science, and Teacher Education). Our proposal adapts this model to the regional French Creek watershed and implements the model to connect courses and research efforts among four natural science departments at Allegheny College via the FCW Research Program and associated website.

Watershed Description

French Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River, is one of the few middle-order streams in the Ohio River watershed that has not been severely altered by historical and current land-use activities. The watershed is a 2850 km2 area that is an economic, historical, and natural resource for approximately 250,000 people in western Pennsylvania and New York. There are a variety of land-use types in FCW, with more than 95% of the area comprised of mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, agricultural fields/pastures and woody wetlands. The FCW subsurface is comprised of Paleozoic sedimentary rocks, Quaternary glacial deposits, and soils representing 4 different soil orders (USDA, 1998). In addition to stream habitat, there is a wealth of standing water habitat including kettle lakes, associated marsh complexes and numerous beaver-dam wetlands (Wissinger and Gallagher, 1999; Wissinger et al. 2001).

The College owns two large parcels of land within FCW, where many course-related field investigations occur. The 46 ha Robertson Forest is adjacent to the College-owned athletic fields, and is within walking distance of the campus. The Bousson Environmental Research Reserve (BERR), is a 140 ha parcel that is 16 km southeast of campus. Within this parcel, the BERR contains hardwood forest; pine plantations; natural and constructed wetlands; and a stretch of Little Sugar Creek, a first-order tributary that feeds into French Creek.

Our choice of a regional watershed system to frame our curricular integration allows for course investigations/exercises to be developed at a variety of sites and scales. Inquiries within a regional system are often not feasible in the confines of a smaller watershed (e.g. examining surface water chemistry as a function of stream order, measuring and comparing carbon budgets from forests and pastures). The use of FCW as a framework for our courses also allows us to integrate data collected from more than 150 student/faculty research projects conducted within FCW over the last ten years. Lastly, implementation of the FCW Research Program is a natural extension of the College's participation in award-winning, watershed-based environmental education and outreach programs (Table 1). Two of these program directors are senior personnel participating in the FCW Research Program.

Training our students with a regional watershed approach parallels the nationwide trend in using watersheds to conduct ecosystem studies and enact environmental protection programs. Watershed-based science has been implemented in a variety of federally-funded research sites and laboratories in the U.S., including those with a long-history of using watersheds to examine ecosystem-level processes (e.g. Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory (Clapp 1956, Swank and Crossley 1988); Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (Likens et al. 1977, 1995, Bormann et al. 1979)). Studies of smaller watersheds have expanded to research of much larger watersheds (e.g. Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation;, as a means to promote scientific understanding within a regional system. State and federal regulatory agencies now embrace the concept of watershed-based environmental monitoring and policy development (e.g. The PA Dept. of Environmental Protection "Unified Watershed Assessment" program; The USDA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources "Watershed Initiatives" program).

Table 1. Existing environmental programs involving the French Creek Watershed (FCW).

Website address

Mission statement

Center for Economic and Environmental Development

To increase community and regional leaders' understanding of how economic and environmental decisions can work hand in hand to bring a new vitality to northwestern Pennsylvania.
Director: Dr. Eric Pallant, Allegheny College

Creek Connections

For Allegheny College faculty and students to provide a framework and assistance for K-12 school-based field research within FCW.Director: Dr. James Palmer, Allegheny College.

The French Creek Project

To work with landowners, farmers, business leaders, local government officials, scientists, conservationists, sportsmen, and educators within FCW to: 1) raise public awareness about the value of the Creek; 2) develop a group of local people who are committed to protecting and enhancing water quality; and 3) preserve habitat and maintain biological diversity within the watershed. Director: Brian Hill

Institutional Description

Allegheny College is a small (1,850 students), private undergraduate liberal arts institution that ranks in the top five percent of all liberal arts schools in producing eventual Ph.D.s in all disciplines. Allegheny is one of the top 80 national liberal arts colleges in the country (U.S. News & World Report, 2000) and is also included in The 100 Best Colleges for African-American Students (Wilson, 1998).

Historically, between 25-33% of Allegheny students graduated with a degree from the natural sciences division (Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Science, Geology, Mathematics, Neuroscience, and Physics.) In the past five years, this proportion has increased; majors in the natural sciences represent 40% of current declared majors at the College. Allegheny requires that all students complete an independent senior thesis in their major. For majors within natural sciences, this project typically involves 3-6 months of field and/or laboratory research, individually supervised by a faculty member.

The Need for Improved Communication and Collaboration

We offer several observations of the natural science division at Allegheny College:

  • Faculty use active-learning techniques and field-based investigations in courses.
  • There is strong, albeit informal, faculty interest in the teaching and research of colleagues in other departments. As a result, curricular programs encourage and/or require students to take coursework from a variety of departments.
  • Faculty have a wealth of research and teaching expertise in a broad range of topics (Table 2).
  • Much of the fieldwork in courses and research projects occurs within 50 km radius of the College, placing it within the FCW.
  • Limited coordination and communication of FCW research occurs across departments.

Currently, no formal infrastructure exists to easily share course and research information within the natural science community at the College. With the FCW Research Program, eight faculty will develop an innovative mechanism to connect the wealth of information gained in courses, senior projects, and other research efforts within the FCW. The program website will serve as a clearinghouse for scientific data collected within the FCW and catalyze cross-disciplinary thinking among faculty, students and interested citizens.

The College natural science curriculum is organized around traditional academic disciplines. Thus, environmental scientists and biologists view the earth from the "top down," focusing their efforts on surface water, biomass and soils. In contrast, geologists and environmental chemists tend to view the earth from the "bottom up," focusing their efforts on understanding the subsurface water/rock environment. At the surface of the Earth, these scientists study interconnected natural systems, which are unique combinations of three fundamental components: biologic materials, geologic materials, and water.

Table 2. Natural science faculty participating in the FCW Research Program.

Faculty member


Research focus within FCW

Richard Bowdenb,c 
Associate Professor, Dept. Chair

Environmental Science

Carbon and nitrogen fluxes in forest ecosystems.

Ronald Cole
Associate Professor


Geomorphology and sedimentology of glaciated regions.

James Palmer
Associate Professor

Env. Science

Chemical water quality analysis (including pesticides); stream biological diversity.

Rachel O'Brienb,c
Assistant Professor


Estimation of groundwater fluxes; chemical evolution of groundwater.

Milton Ostrofsky


Nutrient cycling in lakes; nutrient effects on aquatic community structure.

Eric Pallant

Env. Science

The relationship between economic and environmental community decisions.

Ann Sheffieldb
Associate Professor, Dept. Chair


Atmospheric chemistry (acid deposition); soil contamination of organic compounds.

Scott Wissingerb,c

Env. Science

Freshwater wetland and stream ecology; impacts of exotic species introduction.

aFaculty with multiple listings have joint appointment status between departments.
bDepartment liasons for this project.
cPrincipal investigators for this project.

Request for Instrumentation

The requested instrumentation (Table 3) reflects our desire to have students measure elemental fluxes within biologic, geologic, and hydrologic components of the watershed. Quantitative measures of soil and biomass C and N will be determined with the CNA. Water chemistry and mineralogic analysis of soils/sediments will be obtained using the IC and XRD, respectively. With these instruments, we can provide important training for the next generation of scientists who will need to elucidate fundamental earth science and ecological processes. Whole-water chemistry can be used to examine linkages among mineral weathering rates (e.g. White et al. 1996), cation exchange in soils (e.g. Berner et al. 1999), and ecosystem development (e.g. Vitousek et al. 1988, Chadwick 1999). Clay minerals, identified via XRD analysis, often dominate the hydraulic and chemical behavior in soils and geologic media (Selker et al. 1999). Carbon and nitrogen analyses are critical to understanding impacts of chronic N deposition on forested ecosystems (e.g. Magill et al. 1997), as well as addressing the role of forests and soils in quantifying the global carbon budget (Schimel 1995, Cox et al. 2001).

Table 3. Analytical equipment requested in this proposal. Quotations from instrument manufacturers are provided in Appendix 5. Existing equipment, shared among natural science classes and research, is listed in Appendix 6.


Watershed component

Curricular/research use

LECO® CN-2000
Carbon/Nitrogen Analyzer (CNA)


Carbon and nitrogen concentrations in plant and soil samples.

Dionex® DX-6000 
Liquid Ion Chromatography
System (IC)


Base cations, transition metals, and inorganic anions for natural water samples.

Rigaku® Miniflex
X-Ray Diffractometer (XRD)


Mineralogic analysis for clay-sized fraction of soils and sediments.

The requested CNA would replace a 10 yr. old LECO ® CHN-600 element analyzer purchased by the College with a 1991 NSF-ILI grant. The current CHN is no longer reliable for course instruction, and parts are becoming unavailable from the original vendor. Shy of dangerous benchtop techniques (e.g. Kjeldahl for N), there is no other reasonable means to analyze for C and N. The IC and XRD represent new instruments that expand the analytical capabilities of the College and supplement the existing shared instrumentation (Appendix 6). An IC equipped with cation and anion columns will provide rapid, accurate analysis of commonly-measured dissolved species in natural waters (Na, K, Ca, Mg, NH4, F, Cl, NO3, SO4); coupled with existing college equipment we will be able to measure and report whole-water chemistry data. A 20 year-old diffractometer, decommissioned in 1998 due to radiation safety concerns, was used by geology and chemistry students and faculty. No XRD replacement or substitute currently exists on campus.

Table 4 lists over 20 courses that have the potential to benefit from the requested equipment. Sharing equipment among four science departments maximizes the number of courses and research projects that will utilize the instrumentation. Freshman and sophomores at Allegheny will prepare and analyze field and lab samples in their classes. Juniors and seniors will receive increased training and responsibility for "start to finish" instrument calibration and data collection.

Table 4. Courses that will use the instrumentation requested in Table 3.

Freshman level courses
Equipment/data use

Principles of Biology

Biology (JP)


Environmental Chemistry

Chemistry (AS)


Intro. to Environmental Science

Env. Science (RB, SW)


Physical Geology

Geology (RO, RC)


Environmental Geology

Geology (RO, RC)


Sophomore level coursesDepartment1Equipment/data use

Investigative Approaches in Biology

Biology (SW, JP, MO)


Environmental Research Methods

Env.Science (RB, JP, SW)


Field Geology

Geology (RC)



Geology (RC)


Upperclass (Jr./Sr.) coursesDepartment1Equipment/data use


Biology (MO)



Biology (JP)



Biology (MO)



Biology (MO)


Advanced Analytical Chemistry

Chemistry (AS)


Forest Ecosystems and Management

Env. Science (RB)


Stream Ecology

Env. Science (SW)


Soil and Water Analysis

Env. Science (EP)



Env. Science (SW)


Environmental Geochemistry

Geology (RO)



Geology (RO)


Process Geomorphology

Geology (RO)


1 Initials appearing in parenthesis after departmental course designation identify the faculty member(s) listed in Table 2 who teach the course.

Expected Outcomes

The FCW Research Program will enable a strong and vibrant science faculty to better serve the students, the College, and the public. Specific project benefits include:

  1. Enhanced analytical experience for students. Increasingly, scientific problem-solving and investigation utilizes sophisticated analytical instrumentation and techniques. Access to these instruments will provide students with exposure to analytical techniques and prepare them for graduate programs and careers. Additionally, the opportunity for students to use the same instrument in a variety of courses will promote confidence with analytical techniques.
  2. Faculty will enhance cross-disciplinary teaching and research by having easy, rapid access to syllabi and data for related natural science classes. Table 5 illustrates a few examples of the types of investigations students currently pursue in natural science coursework along with pertinent course data that could be easily posted and shared on the program website.

Table 5. Examples of existing field investigations in natural science classes.

(instruction level)

Existing field-based investigation(s)

Data provided to FC Watershed Research Program website

Physical geology

(Freshman level)

What is the chemical composition of glacial till deposits?

Elemental analysis of till samples (based on XRF analysis); list of observed rock types for large clast samples within the till.

Environmental Research Methods (Sophomore level)

What is the growth efficiency of riparian zone native grasses and sedges?

Germination and growth rates of native plant species. Stream bank soil physical and chemical characteristics.


(Upperclass level)

What is the seasonal relationship between atrazine concentrations in soil and surface water?

Time-series of atrazine concentrations for surface water and soil. Map of sampling locations.

We envision that wider, more public access to data generated through course and research efforts will provide interesting and exciting avenues for cross-disciplinary work within the College. As illustrated in Figure 1, data generated in a given course can provide information that stimulates questions and laboratory exercises in other courses.

  1. Faculty will be able to take local research observations and findings from class and link them to the broader context of published scientific literature in their course design. Comparing class findings to literature reports mimics the scientific process of placing one’s results into context of published studies. This pedagogical approach fosters active classroom activities that promote “minds-on” science (Raloff 1996) that more closely resembles how scientists work. Use of modern instrumentation provides experiential opportunities critical to college undergraduates (Seymour and Hewitt 1997), and promotes the “hands-on, inquiry-based approach to scientific discovery that is critical in student training ” (Pew Higher Education Roundtable 1998).
  2. Students can utilize data/information posted on the program website for a variety of class assignments. In so doing, our undergraduate students will be able to draw "big picture" links between information covered within a variety of natural science classes at all course levels.

Figure 1. Potential course connections fostered at the a) freshman and b) upperclass level via FCW Research Program information. Courses are represented by rectangles, website data products are represented by ovals, and the use of data to help answer a question in another course is represented by an arrow. The course that originally generates the data product is shown at the top of the diagram. For purposes of simplicity, only several courses are linked together; in reality, the number of course connections could be larger for each data product.

  1. Students designing research projects pertaining to FCW will be able to examine previous student research within their study area. By drawing upon the work of their peers, students gain confidence in their ability to design more research projects and place their results and interpretations within the context of the regional system. They will see how their own findings compare to the work of others, link their results with other relevant watershed-based findings, and generate their own interpretations and questions for further study.

  2. Students can access and utilize data in FCW internships and/or outreach programs. Each year, more than 40 Allegheny students participate in programs involving local, state and federal organizations such as Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and the Fish and Wildlife Commission (PA FWC). Many of these organizations have used student-generated analytical data to help guide their own programs.

Dissemination of Results

We anticipate that the project website will provide the largest and most dynamic means to disseminate information and results. Linking the site to departmental and faculty web pages will further enhance public outreach. A comment section attached to the web page will allow us to respond to outside inquiries and requests. We will track these comments to assess program interest and application in the public sector.

The PIs will disseminate program results through presentations at national meetings of the Geological Society of America (GSA), National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Education Section, and North American Benthological Society. Publications focusing on the methods and rewards of coursework integration will be prepared for the Journal of College Science Teachingand/or the Journal of Geoscience Education. Dissemination to interested parties within the region will occur via student and faculty presentations at the Allegheny Watershed Network annual meeting.

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