Pitt-Bradford professor monitors streams for Jakes Rocks project with help of students

Dr. Denise Piechnik hands a multiparameter meter to a student in her aquatic biomonitoring class as they prepare to measure turbidity, sediment, conductivity and temperature of the Tunungwant Creek on campus in preparation for examining streams in the Allegheny National Forest. - Photo by Alan Hancock.

Dr. Denise Piechnik hands a multiparameter meter to a student in her aquatic biomonitoring class as they prepare to measure turbidity, sediment, conductivity and temperature of the Tunungwant Creek on campus in preparation for examining streams in the Allegheny National Forest. – Photo by Alan Hancock.

BRADFORD, Pa. — Let’s just say that Dr. Denise Piechnik is the kind of person more likely to collect a house centipede found in her night kitchen or bathroom than squish it.

The kind of person who has always dreamed of teaching a class in aquatic biomonitoring to her undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

The assistant professor of biology turned out to be just the kind of person the U.S. Forest Service was looking for to perform an important task at the site of the proposed Trails at Jakes Rocks mountain-biking trail system in the Allegheny National Forest near Warren, Pa.

Pitt-Bradford students have been involved with the project for several years now, performing an environmental assessment for the trails.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruled that the project is unlikely to disturb any protected species, Piechnik, with the help of her students, is monitoring the health of tiny headwater streams that cross the trails.

Thus was born her summer class, Aquatic Biomonitoring, the perfect class for the student who would rather eschew the classroom.

A half-dozen students signed up to spend six weeks hiking (and it really is hiking) the uncut forest where the trails will be, find the stream crossings and establish baseline conditions for the streams.

The students were eager to work in a class that took part largely outdoors, first practicing their skills on the West Branch of the Tunungwant Creek that runs through campus, then taking to the forest. They were biology majors who preferred studying ecology to microbes or anatomy. One wanted to go to graduate school to study fisheries. Another admitted that he just learns best in a hands-on environment.

On the first day, Piechnik herself seemed a little daunted by the amount of material the students would have to touch on – aquatic entomology, hydrology, geology, topography and GPS navigation.

Once on the site of the proposed trails, students had to use GPS systems to find the points plotted for the trail, then fight their way through the existing vegetation to get there.

The climbs were steep, too. “It would take us an hour and fifteen minutes to climb up to a point,” Piechnik said,” and 10 minutes to come down.

Once they reached the designated spot, students characterized its habitat. Each student would be responsible for writing up one of the points for Piechnik’s final report to the Forest Service.

Students got their hands on some new equipment, like a Hanna Instruments multiparameter meter that could measure turbidity, sediment, conductivity, temperature and more.

A hydrologist from the Allegheny National Forest also visited the students while they were working in the field, spoke about his work and provided a flow meter for testing.

Piechnik likes to outline for students the job skills they learn in each class and show them jobs they might enjoy doing later. This hand-on project gave her plenty of chances for that.

This fall she will take additional measurements and write a formal report for the Forest Service, but as construction begins, she will be back with students to characterize the habitat again and note any changes.

“There aren’t too many headwaters left that haven’t been disturbed,” Piechnik said. “This is a great opportunity to survey pristine streams.”

Posted by on Aug 11 2015. Filed under Local News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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