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Back Bay Groundwater Monitoring and Declining Water Levels: Bringing the Natural World into the Curriculum

Northeastern is an urban university and there is a strong practice-oriented education mission. In the Earth and Environmental programs, access to field sites for course laboratories is a goal, but a challenge. Installing a network of monitoring wells for teaching was not an option. However, there exists a number of groundwater monitoring wells installed as part of the engineering studies for construction and rehabilitation of campus buildings. These wells have been used for water level and water quality monitoring, and are typically capped at the completion of the project. The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) arranged ongoing permission to access these wells, and to obtain long-term data from the wells through both University Physical Plant office and the geotechnical engineering firm who installed the wells. Students in hydrogeology thus have the opportunity to learn in an applied sense about water quality issues, construction and excavation issues, historical water table issues in the Back Bay, Boston, MA, and the geological history of the campus and of the Boston region, through the hydrologic data. Monitoring wells are used as labs in the upper-undergraduate Hydrogeology course and for demonstration in introductory environmental geology courses. Since the logistics of getting into the field is resolved, a number of independent student projects have been completed which investigate surface water/ groundwater interactions, including: investigating a possible tidal influence on the wells; discovering a water main leak under campus, and documenting structural imperfections in campus buildings and relating them to declining groundwater levels and resultant settling. As the monitoring continues through class laboratories, the long-term database of the hydrogeology of campus is growing, and students recognize that their class laboratory exercises involve contributing real data that will have increasing value in the future.
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