Molly Hatcher '13 and William Gillespie '13 take readings of the concentrations
and values of various physical and chemical groundwater characteristics
Meredith Murray '13 uses spectrophotometer lab analysis to determine the amount
of nitrate in water samples
Randolph-Macon College students enrolled in Professor Michael Fenster’s Environmental
Problem-Solving class have made several trips this semester to two economically-disadvantaged
communities on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to sample the drinking water in residents’
homes and groundwater wells.
The class project, titled “Assessment of the Environmental Health Risks of Private
Well Water in the Cheapside and East Horntown Communities of the Eastern Shore of
Virginia,” allowed students to learn firsthand how to use federal and state government
protocol to obtain well and tap water samples and to analyze the quality of those
water samples in the lab.
“Environmental studies majors
take three environmental problem-solving courses as part of their core requirement
for the major,” explains Fenster, the
Stephen H. Watts Professor of Science. “The courses have real problems,
real clients, and real people who have a stake in the solution to the problem. In
this case, the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission and the Accomack
County Board of Supervisors are our clients.”
The project is the first part of the process designed to improve the infrastructure
and reduce the environmental and health hazards in Cheapside and East Horntown.
Curt Smith, the Director of Planning with the Accomack-Northampton Planning District
Commission, says that the work conducted by the R-MC students “will be extremely
beneficial in identifying any health risks associated with contamination of groundwater
from historic land use and wastewater treatment activities in the communities. The
outcomes could potentially support and strengthen any proposals for federal or state
community redevelopment funds that would not only remediate any health risks, but
greatly enhance the overall standard of living in the communities.”
“Many of the homes in these communities have sub-standard living conditions and
many of the residents have complained about water that stains or smells,” says Fenster.
“Our students assessed the health risks posed to the residents when they drink shallow
groundwater from their wells located in the same area as their leaky septic systems
or nearby large farms.”
Students began the process by recruiting members from these communities at Town
Hall meetings and convincing the residents to allow them to sample their well and
tap water. Students plan to use the results from their efforts to educate the residents
at the end of the project about their specific environmental health risks and to
make a more formal presentation to their clients. Lab tests conducted at R-MC are
still pending, says Fenster, but preliminary results show that the water meets government
standards for some constituents, but not all.
“The environmental studies curriculum at R-MC is great because we get to solve real-world
problems and gain hands-on experience,” says Brett Pollard ’13,
an environmental studies major
and political science minor. “This
project is especially rewarding because we are helping those who aren’t as privileged
as many of us. Safe drinking water is something most of us take for granted.”
Fenster’s students also applied for a scholarship based on the work they did on
the Eastern Shore. The contest, sponsored by Cengage Learning, invited students
to submit original videos that answer the question, “What makes you a unique learner?”
Cengage Learning is a leading provider of innovative teaching, learning and research
solutions for academic, professional and library markets worldwide.
“Although they didn’t win the contest,
the video is another illustration of our students’ enthusiasm for and dedication
to this project,” says Fenster.
About Michael Fenster
Fenster joined the R-MC faculty in 2000 and has served as the director of the Environmental
Studies program since 2006. He earned his B.S. and M.S. from the University of Mississippi,
and his Ph.D. from Boston University. His research specializes in the morphodynamic
changes to beaches and tidal inlets along coastal barriers, especially those changes
caused by storms and climate change.
Fenster has twice traveled with his students to Iceland in conjunction with
The Geology of Iceland: A Seam on the Coat of the World. The course gives
students the opportunity to examine, analyze and map individual volcanic and glacial
features as well as landscape features produced by the interaction of fire, ice
and the ocean.
He was twice named a finalist for the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia
(SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award, and he was honored with the United Methodist
Church Exemplary Teaching Award by Randolph-Macon College in 2008.