For Associate Professor Luke Juran of the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the human dynamics that inform water ecology is a subject that has local — and global — dimensions.

“Water is a physical resource, but it is moved by humans, and our interactions with water are essential drivers in how we live,” said Juran, who teaches human dimensions of water in the Department of Geography. “With competing stakeholders and competing objectives, the challenges surrounding water are extremely complex and require a range of skill sets and viewpoints to tackle.”

With a specialization in how human interactions with water resources are impacted by disasters, Juran’s research has focused primarily on the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which borders the Bay of Bengal.

“I’ve been conducting research there for 17 years,” he explained. “It’s an area where water steadily impacts people’s lives. The capital city of Chennai is on the coast, and the state is also on the delta of a major river. There are annual monsoons and tropical storms that bring heavy rain; as the land is flat, the water is difficult to drain. When there isn’t enough rain there is drought, so you have a place where there is either too much water or not enough.”

Juran’s research focuses on turning the frequent moments of crisis faced by people in Tamil Nadu into opportunities for positive change.

“Often, the response to these crises is to patch up the existing systems and move on,” said Juran, an affiliate of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center and of the Center for Coastal Studies housed in the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “But there is a chance to rebuild these infrastructures in a way that utilizes water resources more sustainably while also addressing the many public health challenges that water quality impacts.”

Closer to home, Juran has supported undergraduate research on water issues in Virginia, with students Saalehah Habeebah and Alexa Maione each receiving Sustainable Water Undergraduate Research Fellowships this year. Habeebah researched access issues to water, sanitation, and hygiene services among newly arrived refugees to the New River Valley, while Maione set up an aquaponics system at the Blacksburg New School that combines plants and fish in a low-impact method for cultivating food.

Juran has also worked with colleagues to share water science with high school students in Virginia. In a state where one in five households relies on wells, springs, or cisterns for drinking water, it is crucially important for people to have reliable testing resources.

“The Virginia Household Water Quality Program has a service where they will test your water and provide a report on the quality and what steps can be taken to fix the problems,” he said. “Since Virginia Tech is already testing water through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, a team led by Erin Ling, water quality extension associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, was formed to expand bringing high school students from rural communities to campus to do their own water testing while experiencing what life is like at a research university.”

“We did five or six workshops before COVID-19 shut things down,” Juran said of the program, which was funded by a Freshwater Systems Science Seed Grant. “The exciting part was that we had undergraduates leading the lessons, which was great at making college life feel like a possibility for the high school students. It’s important outreach and a chance to connect their everyday lives to some of the work being done on campus.”

When Virginia schools converted to online learning this past spring, the collaborators switched gears and worked to develop water science kits for distribution to students needing supplemental learning activities.

The water science kits, funded by a seed grant from the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and a COVID-19 response grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, are comprised of four experiments aimed at promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning around water.

The team for this collaborative project is led by Associate Professor Leigh-Anne Krometis of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering and Extension Specialist Erika Bonnett of Virginia Cooperative Extension. Team members include faculty and students from the departments of Geography, Biological Systems Engineering, and Geosciences.

In August, the team sent a trial version of the water science kits to 30 homes around the state, aiming to reach a broad demographic of participants. The kits included a survey that asked children and parents to assess which lessons in the kits were the most engaging and what the children were learning about water.

For senior Molly Hackley, working on developing the water science kits was a chance to experience what it was like to think as a teacher.

“One of the challenges, for me, was to think from the perspective of a teacher,” said Hackley, who is majoring in environmental conservation and society. “Throughout my education, I’ve been in the role of a student, but this project made me consider the other side. In addition to creating a lesson, I had to know the Virginia Standards of Learning and curriculum guidelines.”

Hackley worked to develop the lesson on water conservation: Children would be asked to survey water use in their home and see where they could make a conservation difference. The other lessons included creating a watershed model and then demonstrating how pollution can impact a water supply, building a working water filtration device out of household materials, and assembling a working irrigation center pivot to show how water is used in agriculture.

“The water conservation one was my favorite because it focuses on what I care about, which is sustainability and conservation practices,” Hackley said. “I had a lot of fun putting that lesson together.”

For Juran, local projects are crucial in preparing students to make an impact on the greater world. “It’s important for faculty to provide students with experiences that get them out of their comfort zones,” he said. “Asking a student to conduct original research and develop curriculum and teaching materials when they’ve only been on the student side of the prism is a way to flip the classroom and give them a sense of ownership over their education.”

The team of researchers will be refining the water science kits and then scaling up production, with a goal of sending 600 kits to Virginia children this fall.

Written by David Fleming

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