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Stream bank restoration in Sandy Springs, Ga.

Watershed assessment course debuts with strong demand A former KSU student’s decade-old paper…

Georgia (Jun 30, 2011)

Watershed assessment course debuts with strong demand

A former KSU student’s decade-old paper assessing local watershed conditions resurfaced recently, prompting a phone call from an environmentally conscious local resident who wondered if such a class still existed. It did not.

Thanks to the inquiry and receptive and responsive faculty members with interdisciplinary capabilities, it does now.

Launched in summer 2011, the new course—Watershed Assessment and Analysis—teaches students how to assess the quality and condition of a watershed as well as to engage with private and public agencies to improve it.

The new course – a brainchild of a pair of geography professors - was intended for 12 students; however, this summer 26 enrolled from multiple disciplines, including geography, environmental studies and geographic information science.

Mark Patterson, associate professor of geography and the lead instructor for the course, fielded the call from a member of the Watershed Alliance of Sandy Springs. With co-instructor Nancy Hoalst-Pullen, assistant professor of geography, Patterson designed a course that allows students to examine changes at different locations within a small urban watershed over time. The course also is intended to provide students hands-on learning experiences with the physical, chemical and biological testing of streams, the restoration of impaired sections of a stream, and the dynamics of civic and political engagement for the sake of the watershed.

The timing was perfect since Patterson and Hoalst-Pullen were already working with Beth Giddens, associate professor of English, to draft a proposal for a new bachelor’s degree in Environmental Analysis and Sustainability. The three professors collaborated with members of a faculty environmental studies working group last spring to assure the proposed degree program provides students field-based research opportunities incorporating skills and knowledge across various disciplines. If approved, the proposed degree program will be housed in KSU’s new Interdisciplinary Studies Department.

Largely through field work, students in this summer’s Watershed Assessment and Analysis class are collecting and analyzing water quality data at twelve locations along Sandy Springs’ Long Island Creek, conducting an urban tree inventory of species adjacent the stream sites, and learning methods and techniques of stream bank restoration.  Additionally, students learned to use satellite imagery and geospatial technologies like geographic information systems (GIS) to create maps of the watershed that showcase changes in land cover and land use over time.

For example, Patterson explained, students looked at satellite images over time to determine the amount of concrete and pavement, called impervious surfaces, in the watershed. 

“The more of these surfaces you see, the poorer the water quality tends to be, “Patterson said.  “Generally as you move downstream, the worse water quality gets as more pollutants enter the stream.”

Patterson and Hoalst-Pullen designed the course to balance students’ academic and practical learning experiences. During the four-week course, students split their time between on-campus and field activities, including certification in water quality testing by the Georgia Adopt-a-Stream program. In the field, students collected environmental data and analyzed the stream water for pH, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity. Back in the lab, students tested their water samples for chemicals and bacteria that indicate pollution, primarily nitrate, phosphate and E.coli.

A series of experts enhanced the course with presentations from scientific, community-based or land management perspectives on the needs and issues of metro-Atlanta’s watersheds.  Guest presenters included representatives from Kennesaw State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Watershed Alliance of Sandy Springs, Georgia’s Adopt-a-Stream/Cobb County Water and the city of Sandy Springs.

At one field outing, KSU biology professor Bill Ensign led groups of students in exploring the stream’s fish ecology.  Donning hip waders, students followed a similarly-clad Ensign up the stream as he “shocked” fish species to the surface using an electroshock backpack. Once identified and inventoried, all fish were released back to the stream unharmed.

“I am really enjoying this class, especially the tangibility of doing something compared to just reading about it,” said Chris Hawk, a junior GIS major.  “You learn it; then you go do it.  It’s a welcome change.”

Kimberly Atlee, an environmental studies major and self-described “nature girl,” noted the opportunity the class provides to do something positive for the environment. She said what she is learning supports her career goal of working in water conservation.

Mark Long, a senior GIS major, said the course allows him to tie together skills he learned in his first career in wildlife rehabilitation. “I’ve been working with land surveying and the AutoCAD software program and now I can tie in mapping and land assessment,” he said.

As a capstone project, the students will complete a report and present their findings to representatives of the National Park Service, the City of Sandy Springs, Georgia Adopt-a-Stream and the Watershed Alliance of Sandy Spring.

“A major accomplishment of the course is that the final project is a deliverable to the community,” said Hoalst-Pullen, who helped design and teach the course.  “It’s an excellent way for students to be engaged citizens.”

-- Sabbaye McGriff 


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit