Calvin creates sand dune on campus for science students

COVID-19 won’t stop researchers from learning about environmental matters.
The new landmark, called Perseverance Dune, is situated near the Prince Conference Center on the Grand Rapids campus. Courtesy Calvin University

A Calvin University professor normally takes her students to the sand dunes along Lake Michigan but now, because of COVID-19, she is bringing the sand dunes to her students.

Deanna van Dijk is a professor of geology, geography and environmental studies. Students who are enrolled in her First-Year Research in Earth Science course will be able to conduct hands-on research on campus this fall.

That’s because there are now 1,250 tons of sand laying on an 8,975-square-foot area renamed the Perseverance Dune. It sits on the east side of the Prince Conference Center on a slope that overlooks a pond on the southeast Grand Rapids campus. Throughout the semester students will be conducting hands-on scientific research that will assist dune managers and scientists.

Van Dijk said she has not settled on the research topics her class will tackle when classes begin on Sept. 1, but she said she has a few in mind.

One could involve arrangements of plants that slow sand movement. She said the goal is to help dune managers figure out the best types and configurations of plants to stabilize dune surfaces.

A second project could involve the use of sand fences or woody debris such as tree trunks with the same goal in mind.

“Sand fences are commonly used along the coast for stabilization, but wood debris are more bio-degradable,” she said. “Sand fences, if they get buried, they still usually have their metal posts in the ground and some of the wires. That type of knowledge can be used by dune managers in their decision making in the management they are doing.”

The professor said another interesting aspect will be comparing the campus dune to Lake Michigan’s dunes and noting any differences, which will offer context for other studies.

Although the new topics for the research study have not been solidified, van Dijk said the structure of the course will be relatively the same for the lab portion of the class.

“When we start in the fall, it is hands-on with the aim of building students’ observational skills — that definition of what is a sand dune?” she said. “What it is like in the field? What are you seeing? What are the patterns that you are seeing? And then you do field sketches and take notes on that. We do some measurements like measuring the height of the dune and the distance of the dune, so we are not only doing general field sketches, but we are actually graphing it out and understanding the numbers.

“Then we build up to actually using pieces of equipment like a totem station to do a 3D map of the dune and GPS units so we can also map things like where the vegetation is and what is in the surrounding area of the dune? We develop skills such as measuring the wind speed and other weather and surface characteristics.

“Then when we get into the studies themselves, they’ll be divided into groups and each group will have a research question.”

Calvin University senior Peter Duimstra will be a mentor to students in the class this fall. He took the course in 2017, which he said influenced his decision to major in geography.

“It wasn’t like any other class experience that I have ever had, that’s for sure,” he said. “I was used to a traditional class style where you are in the classroom and the teacher is at the white board or chalk board and there was some of that, but every Thursday we would go out to the dunes and we would learn a lot about the coastal dune formation. I picked up a lot of information about the dune environment.”

While the majority of the hands-on work will be done at the sand dune on campus, van Dijk said she also will be taking her 24 students to the sand dunes along Lake Michigan so students will get the opportunity to see a naturally formed sand dune.

In prior years, van Dijk and her students would pack into minivans to do research at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, North Beach Park and other Ottawa County dunes.

“In Michigan, we are so blessed to have these large areas of dunes along the lakeshore,” she said. “The first step to be able to manage them is understanding what is going on with them. There is a lot that we don’t know about them, so we just want to move the science forward.

“For the students in this course, it is really not important that they are studying sand dunes. What is more important is that they are studying something through the methods of science, so they are getting this insider knowledge of what happens in science. Since a lot of my students aren’t planning to go into a science career, this course makes them better citizens because when they see scientific results reported in the media or hear about government policies being debated that have science involved, they have a better knowledge about what science is and what science does. It just gives them a better ability to be good citizens of this world.”

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