Freshwater Fridays keeps learning REAL

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Last spring CES faculty Dan McGarvey, James Vonesh, and adjunct instructor & Chesapeake Bay Foundation Staff Scientist Joe Wood envisioned a new collaborative course block focused on freshwater science and policy dubbed “Freshwater Fridays“. Freshwater Fridays includes 3 integrated 500-level topics courses – SCENIC NATURAL RESOURCES POLICY & ASSESSMENT, co-led by Vonesh and Lynn Crump, Scenic Resources Coordinator for Virginia Depart of Conservation and Recreation, STEAM SURVEY METHODS led by McGarvey, and VIRGINIA WATER QUALITY ISSUES & CAREERS led by Wood. The purpose of block scheduling these courses over 9 hours every Friday was to enable the courses to develop a more immersive and integrated curriculum whereby instructors can teach not only course-specific content but highlight the overlap across disciplines and to facilitate our ability to integrate day- and weekend trips to increase opportunities for hands-on place-based Relevant Experiential Applied Learning (REAL).

Adapting to the times

Student enthusiasm was high during spring registration – enrollment quickly filled. Then the pandemic hit.Dr. McGarvey lectures in pop-up classroom at park pavilion [View Image]Dr. Dan McGarvey lectures in a “pop-up” classroom in Forest Hill park before the class practiced stream sampling along Reedy Creek.

“The pandemic forced educators around the country to rethink how they were going to teach their courses this fall”,  said Vonesh, “since our courses were fundamentally based on experiential hands-on in-person learning, often off-campus, we faced some unique challenges. We had to take Freshwater Fridays back to the editing table and see if we could still deliver something that resembled what we had promised safely and in compliance with health guidelines.”

After input from across the university and from the students enrolled, a revised Freshwater Fridays emerged. Wood’s WATER QUALITY ISSUES course moved online, with Wood focusing on bringing regional leaders in water policy to the class through ZOOM. McGarvey split his fish and aquatic invertebrate identification labs, which require extensive microscope work, into 2 sections to maintain social distancing. Since they were unable to obtain a large enough room for all the students to meet together on campus while maintaining social distancing, they schedule some classes in city park pavilions. Rather than the fieldwork initially planned across all Virginia’s major physiogeographic regions, which would have required overnight trips, the focus shifted to sections of the James River and tributaries that could be visited in a day.

While fieldwork itself is not contraindicated by health and safety guidelines, being outdoors is generally thought to be less risky than being indoors when it comes to exposure to coronavirus,  transportation to field sites became the bottleneck.Riverside Outfitters provided access to a large school bus to enable social distancing during a short shuttle between put-in and take-out. [View Image]Matt Perry of Riverside Outfitters provided a socially distanced shuttle option and also spoke to the students about his perspective on the value of the VA Scenic Rivers Program as a local outfitter/business owner.

“We needed sites where students could meet us”, Vonesh said,” having the James River and the city park system within walking, biking, or driving distance of campus was key to our being able to retain many of the experiential elements.”

To maintain other elements of the course, they needed to develop new partners. On their scenic assessment field day on the James River below New Canton, safely transporting students between the put-in to the take-out presented a particular challenge. Normally, 12 passenger vans would have been used, but those wouldn’t have allowed sufficient social distancing. Instead,  Richmond-based Riverside Outfitters helped out with access to their full-sized school bus which enabled the course to maintain social distancing measures during the short shuttle.

Pathways to freshwater careers 

Wood’s water quality course focuses on putting students face to face with environmental professionals to give students a chance to see the opportunities and challenges that may face them in their future careers.  The course has focused on how the clean water act has played out in Virginia, including gaps in protection and successes.  Students engage with water quality experts from NGOs and State and federal agencies. Several  VCU Environmental Studies alumni have spoken to the students offering tips and advice for transitioning from student to professional. For example, last week CES alum Will Isenberg, who works on developing water quality plans at the Department of Environmental Quality, spoke to students offering tips on pursuing employment in the environmental field.

In-person meets virtual in scenic assessment

In SCENIC NATURAL RESOURCES, students are introduced to scenic resource concepts, policy, and assessment while engaging deeply in this topic through a course-embedded research project in collaboration with the Virginia Scenic River Program. Scenic resources are important to both quality of life and the economy and may be subject to local, regional, and national legislation.  The scenic value of a landscape is based on human perception of the intrinsic beauty of landform, water form, and vegetation in the landscape, as well as any visible human additions or alterations to the landscape. Assessment of scenic value often involves an in-person field evaluation. However, digital media are increasingly used to archive viewshed appearance and contribute to the assessment process. One of the focal research questions for the scenic class this year is,

To what extent can we rely on digital imagery when assessing scenic value? Do scenic resource assessments based on field observations and those based on digital imagery produce similar results?

Ryan Crenshaw on the Terrain360 raft with the VCU Scenic Resources course on the upper James River [View Image]Ryan Crenshaw on the Terrain360 raft with the VCU Scenic Resources course on the upper James River ArcGIS Survey123 scenic data collection app [View Image]ArcGIS Survey123 app developed by Ryland Stunkle enables scenic assessment data collection using smartphones from the field

To address this question, the class teamed up with landscape architect Lynn Crump, who runs the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program, and local entrepreneur and outdoor enthusiast Ryan Abrahamsen, of Richmond-based Terrain360, to study the 10.5-mile section of the James River between New Canton and Columbia.  Lynn explained that the local community had requested that this section be evaluated for possible state scenic designation to help attract more ecotourism to the region. Ryan shared his vision for using technology and high-quality imagery to create virtual maps of our natural treasures to attract people into the outdoors. He also walked the class through the iterative development of his raft-mounted “Google Streetview” camera equipment which he has used to create 360 virtual maps of a number of mid-Atlantic rivers, including the James River from source to sea.

“It was touch and go as to whether we were going to be able to conduct the scenic assessment”, Vonesh said, “There were a lot of moving parts to coordinate. The VCU Outdoor Adventure Program was leading the trip and providing safety training, boats, and other gear. Riverside Outfitters had just a few-hour window when their bus was available for the shuttle assist. Terrain360 needed clear weather to deploy their “Google Streetview” camera equipt raft. Lynn Crump was juggling her availability to meet us in the field. Everything was in place… then the remains of Hurricane Sally rolled through the evening before the assessment. We only make the call to go for it 24 hrs in advance – but fortunately, the skies cleared as we arrived at the put-in and the day was perfect”.

Student Courtney Coates said,

The coolest thing to me was getting to talk to Lynn and Ryan about their careers and seeing how passionate and happy they are. I liked hearing about all the other components of Lynn’s job, and the careers she has had in the past. We were so lucky to have a beautiful day on the river, perfect for learning and seeing our guests out in the field!

As the team floated downstream Lynn guided the students in visual assessment every couple of miles and students recorded their ratings on an ArcGIS Survery123 phone app specifically developed for the course. Simultaneously, Terrain360 captured the full panorama view of the entire section – enabling the course to re-float and re-assess this river segment in a virtual environment  (To float the river with the class in Terrain360 click here and hit “play”). By examining the correlation between scores students made in-person in the field with their scores made at the same georeferenced location viewed through the Terrain360 virtual environment we can begin to quantitatively address the relationship between field and digital imagery based assessments.

Student Josh McCauley summed up the day,

Whether collecting live data using a phone app, having friendly canoe battles, admiring some guerilla art, or identifying native and non-native vegetation, canoeing the James River from New Canton to Columbia was an entirely unique experience for me.


Biodiversity of the Rockfish RiverDr. Dan McGarvey demonstrates using a clinometer to measure stream gradient [View Image]Dr. Dan McGarvey demonstrates using a clinometer to measure stream gradient

McGarvey’s stream methods course focuses on sampling and identification of common fish and aquatic macroinvertebrates found in Virginia rivers and streams.  To develop basic proficiency in these skills, Freshwater Fridays students participate in McGarvey’s fieldwork on the South Fork of the Rockfish River, a tributary of the James River, in Nelson County. McGarvey started studying the Rockfish to establish a baseline benchmark for river health prior to planned development in the region associated with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project – a project that was canceled earlier this past July. List of fish species sampled along the Rockfish River [View Image]However, the work continues to inform our basic understanding of how stream foodwebs are structured. Students spent the day working in and around the river in chest waders. They deployed block nets using seines up and downstream to isolate a focal reach, and then using backpacking electrofishing to conduct multiple depletion pass sampling runs to quantify fish abundance and diversity (see timelapse GoPro360 video below). Students were taught best practices for anesthetizing fish before processing, how to used keys and guides to identify the fish, and how to weigh and measure individual specimens before releasing them (IACUC AD10000441). They also learned how to use a Hess sampler to measure the abundance and diversity of stream benthic macroinvertebrates.  Dr. McGarvey and his lab recently published a video supplemented article in JOVE – the Journal Of Visual Experiments – which provides a roadmap for this widely used approach to sampling stream biodiversity (McGarvey, D. J., Woods, T. E., Kirk, A. J. 2019 Modeling the Size Spectrum for Macroinvertebrates and Fishes in Stream Ecosystems.  doi:10.3791/59945). If ever there was an “immersive” learning activity, this is it! Over 2 days of effort at 2 sites on the South Rockfish the team sampled nearly 1000 fish of 23 different species! When asked the total number of fish species in Virginia, McGarvey, responded, “There is no single, correct answer to that question. In Virginia, the official number of primary, native freshwater fish species was 210, as of the 1993 publication of Jenkins & Burkhead’s “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia”, the authoritative text. More recent taxonomic work has almost certainly pushed the number up by 10-20 species. But, extirpations have likely offset that. Also keep in mind that probably 1/3 of the 210 estimate is endemic to the Tennessee River, which is only a small fraction of southwest VA.” So it seems likely that the class got to see a nice slice of eastern Virginia’s fish diversity as part of the class.

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