A Mile-Long Classroom

Art in Waller Creek by Paige Giordano, image credit Marie Lorenz

A physics professor looks for elusive wood ducks on daily walks to the gym; an engineering class collects vials of water to determine alkalinity; a theater group—barefoot and in character—performs under cypress trees: Waller Creek is UT Austin’s largest living lab and a spot of nature for many on campus.

“Waller Creek is broadly used as a resource for research and teaching,” says Stuart Reichler, a senior lecturer in the College of Natural Sciences. “We know that undergraduates get measureable benefits from research experience, and we expand student’s horizons into environmental science and other fields by teaching outdoors.”

The story of UT Austin’s largest classroom and laboratory is largely untold, although recent changes suggest that Waller Creek is finally gaining center stage.  A new archive is pulling together the scattered record of research, and information about the creek and its history, and a campus committee chaired by Allan Shearer, associate professor in the School of Architecture, is developing the Waller Creek Framework Plan. Additionally, the Waller Creek Working Group recently held its second symposium that drew about 100 people to learn about research in water quality, Dean Hendrickson’s research on the fish species that reside in the pools, and the campus’ role as steward of a swath of the Waller Creek watershed.

Waller Creek runs for about a mile through UT Austin’s main campus. The creek was not part of the original Forty Acres but was integrated into campus as it expanded, with the first bridge over the creek being built in 1924 to access the new stadium. Part of the creek’s current beauty—and playing a critical role in stabilizing its banks when stormwater rushes down the narrow channel toward Ladybird Lake—are 71 giant bald cypress trees that were transplanted from the Guadalupe River in 1936 and East Texas in 1950. Some 300 animal species, including plain-bellied watersnakes, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and nine-banded armadillos, have been spotted along the creek’s course, and a new citizen science initiative through iNaturalist allows anyone to collect data and document their observations.

As a semi-wild place with an urban built environment, Waller Creek is a natural draw for faculty and students. For nearly 40 years, Norma Fowler, professor in Integrative Biology, has eschewed a slide show in a fluorescent-lit room for a creek-side lesson on invasive species, succession, erosion, water pollution.

“Going to the creek is an easy way for students to learn about environmental gradients and their effect on plants,” says Fowler. “Waller Creek is really a thin ribbon of biodiversity right here on campus.”

Similarly, a studio class taught by Marie Lorenz, faculty in the Department of Art and Art History, encourages students to sculpt immersive pieces along the creek’s banks, while Architecture’s Shearer uses the watercourse for a final collaborative graduate project in landscape architecture.

“Because Waller Creek runs a mile and a bit through campus, it has a lot of stakeholders who front it,” says Shearer. “This pushes our students to think about systems and how to resolve competing objectives that also enhance the environment, engage the creek, and expand access.”

The water itself—or, rather, its quality—has been a long-standing focus of work in Waller Creek. Students affiliated with the Environmental Science Institute, for example, learn about the impact of urbanization on streams and aquatic life by comparing Waller Creek’s water to that from suburban watersheds. Lynn Katz, professor in civil, architectural and environmental engineering (CAEE), teaches a foundations course for a new environmental engineering degree that mirrors a chemistry syllabus: students head to Waller Creek to test for pH, alkalinity, and ion composition, while learning about acids and bases in another class.

“By using the creek as a case study, students get reinforcement of content,” says Katz. “We know that it is important to understand connections because students are more likely to retain the concepts.”

Another professor in CAEE, Kerry Kinney, and colleagues have focused on mapping the creek’s water quality and microbiome as part of their UT Biome/EnviroMap initiative that integrates novel experiential learning opportunities into existing courses and simultaneously generates data that can alert the city to hotspots that reflect broken pipes, high pollution levels. Other faculty who direct research on contaminants and pollution in the water include Mary Poteet, a Provost’s Teaching Fellow affiliated with the department of geological sciences, and Tim Riedel, a clinical assistant professor who directs the DIY Diagnostics stream of the Freshman Research Initiative.

The result of the many research projects: Waller Creek has many pollutants as well as some of the highest levels of fecal contamination in Austin.

“Waller Creek is characterized by the urban stream syndrome, which includes leaky infrastructure, high impervious cover, low biotic diversity and flashy stormflow,” says Poteet. “This syndrome occurs in most urban creeks, so it is not just characteristic of Austin. But Austin can do better and restore Waller Creek into a place where people are encouraged to interact with nature.”

By addressing pollution as well as managing other competing needs along Waller Creek, such as safety, flood control, and erosion, UT Austin can encourage a more vibrant ecosystem that continues to draw students, staff, and faculty.

“There are lots of questions can be asked—and answered—using the creek,” says Reichler. “It would be fabulous if even more classes and projects were using this fantastic campus resource.”

 

Image crediting: Marie Lorenz captured the work of freshman design student Paige Giordano