‘Hands on minds on’ approach takes students into the New River with the Town of Blacksburg’s Parks & Recreation

M_TARUSBlacksburg, VA

January 10th, 2014

Most days the public takes feats in engineering for granted, for example: something as simple as, driving across a bridge.  Advances in engineering have made it possible to cross-vast bodies of water by building structures within the coastal or marine environment.  The safety of these structures relies on the stability of their foundations and continued research on the conditions in which these foundations exist offer insight to the challenge of building in water.

Dr. Nina Stark, assistant professor in the geotechnical area of civil engineering, joined the university after finishing her postdoctoral work at Dalhousie University’s Department of Oceanography in Halifax, Canada.  Her research focuses on coastal and marine geotechnics.  She investigates coastal sediment dynamics from a physical and geotechnical perspective, including beach dynamics, subaqueous bedform evolution and migration, navigation channel development, and structure-sediment interaction in the coastal zone.  Particularly, scour is one of her main research interests, and she has been working on different projects investigating the development of scour around offshore renewable energy converters, such as wind turbines.

Stark teaches, coastal and marine geotechnics, which focuses on introducing graduate students to coastal zone and marine environments and how to conduct geotechnical in-situ surveying in such areas.  After participating in a kayaking trip in August with Blacksburg Parks and Recreation, Stark came up with an idea for a project for her class.  Students would have to plan, design and execute a lab with the help of Blacksburg parks and recreation to study the effects of erosion (scour) on test pieces in the New River.

The students broke up into different groups, in an effort to assign tasks, with some serving as project managers, some focusing on scour protection or monitoring and others working on the construction of the lab and monitoring flow.  When asked how building and managing the project together as a team worked, one student, Paul Johnston said,  “decisions made might not have been exactly what one person in the group would have wanted, but everyone came together to make the project stronger” “no-one really had veto power on ideas.”  The exercise offered the students hands on experience in what research will be like outside of the classroom.  Allowing them to work together as a cohesive unit, building the project from design, execution to conclusion.

Students worked with Travis Coad the Outdoor Supervisor from Blacksburg parks and recreation to find a site suitable for the experiment.  Sayantani Ghosh contacted Coad and worked with him to choose and area of the river that offered a good amount of flow.  They settled on a section of the river near Eggleston Bridge in Giles County Virginia after visiting other areas.

On Sunday, November 17th Stark, nine students and two town employees headed to the location to begin the experiment, which last about five hours.  Students sank a canoe to modify the natural flow, used floating ping-pong balls to measure

the flow, and built the TARUS scour protection, a netted, doughnut shaped gravel ring, to name just a few of the tasks. (See picture to the right).  The TARUS slid over their test pipe and served as protection against scour.  The control pipe was just placed in the riverbed with no protection, it lasted about forty-five minutes before falling down.  The pipe with the TARUS was still standing at the end of the experiment.

Working in the field of the New River gave hands on experience as to why the topic of scour is such an important issue when building structures in water. One student remarked that graduate courses can be very theoretical, so it was nice to be so “hands on” during this project, reiterating the motto ‘hands on, minds on.’

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