Natural Sciences and Environmental Sciences

The field of Natural and Environmental Sciences is a physical- and biological-science based research area that addresses the interface of environmental science and human activity using a broad range of disciplines. Most of the projects offered through UROP can be categorized four major areas: biological (Ecology and the Environment), economic (Environmental and Resource Economics), physical (Environmental Chemistry: Soil, Air, Water), and social (Environment and Society).  Below is just a small sample of projects offered through our program.

 

Sample Project 1: Carbon Cycling From Soils to Groundwater

Project Objective:
To characterize the mineral and organic matter composition of glacially-derived soils and identify mobile weathering components and rates of transport to the regional groundwater system.  Methods involve water chemical analyses and mineral identification.  To conduct field and laboratory geochemical measurements, to generate and manipulate databases to create and interpret graphical datasets.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
To conduct field and laboratory geochemical measurements, to generate and manipulate databases to create and interpret graphical datasets.

Sample Project 2: Technology Research for Environmental Observations

Project Objectives:
The goal of this project is to perform research and further the development of systems and sensors for marine biological, chemical, and physical observations. A variety of underwater systems are currently in development  including vertical profilers, towed plankton survey system, acoustic and video survey systems, web-based real-time data collection, and various internal laboratory measurement systems.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
Assisting researchers with data analysis, image processing and image analysis, instrument calibrations, mechanical design and assembly and web based applications. Programming in a PC environment using C/C++, PASCAL, Visual Basic, MATLAB, and Visual C++

Sample Project 3: GIS-based Analysis of Land Use and Land Cover Change

Project Objective:
The objectives of this research are to investigate both the causes and consequences of land use and land cover change in temperate regions.  The work is focused on the Upper Midwest, with projects looking at both the Northwoods in the northern part of the region and metropolitan areas in the south, like Southeastern Michigan.  We use digital remote sensing (aerial photographs and satellite images) and spatial analysis within a geographic information system framework to investigate land use/cover dynamics, their socioeconomic causes, and ecological consequences. We also develop models to explain land use/cover changes and their effects.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
Students learn a lot about remote sensing and GIS technology; how to input, analyze and display information; and how to investigate interactions between society and environment. In addition to independent research, students will help in the processing of geographic information towards the objectives of the larger projects.

Sample Project 4: Effects of Diporeia Declines on Fish Diet, Growth and Food Web

Project Objectives:
Diporeia, the dominant benthic macroinvertebrate in offshore waters of the Great Lakes, have decreased in abundance on average 80% between 1980 and 1993 in southeast Lake Michigan.  Declines of Diporeia have been most pronounced near St. Joseph, MI, but areas of decline are expanding north toward Muskegon, MI.  Similar declines in Diporeia abundance have now been observed in other Great Lakes, most notably Erie and Ontario.  We expect that decreases in Diporeia densities will disrupt prey fish population dynamics and alter foodweb relationships by increasing competition for alternate food resources (e.g., Mysis) in regions where Diporeia were previously abundant.  In particular, we anticipate declines in prey fish growth, condition and abundance.  Our specific objectives include 1) characterizing alewife, bloater, rainbow smelt, whitefish, and slimy sculpin diets in southeast Lake Michigan, 2) monitoring prey fish weights and numeric densities and 3) measuring the densities and size structure of Diporeia, other benthic invertebrates, Mysis and pelagic zooplankton.  We will quantify prey fish diets, weight, age, abundance and condition at separate sampling sites on Lake Michigan near St. Joseph, Muskegon, and Pentwater, MI.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
The student will perform varied tasks including:

  1. Dissecting slimy and deepwater sculpins and removing the stomach;
  2. Identification and enumeration of invertebrates in stomach samples;
  3. Identification and enumeration of invertebrates in zooplankton net tows and benthic grab samples;
  4. Measuring the sizes of invertebrates using an image analysis system;
  5. Assessing fish age from otoliths (ear stones);
  6. Basic data entry and analysis;
  7. Library research

Sample Project 5: BioKIDS and the Animal Diversity Web

Project Objectives:
In this project, called BioKIDS, our goal is to adapt a website, the Animal Diversity Web (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu) for use in teaching science to 5th and 6th graders.  The website is a very large encyclopedia of the natural history of animals that has been put together largely by student authors using a template and other tools we provide.  Because it is both structured and queriable, it is a wonderful resource for teaching by "inquiry" methods, that is, teaching by guiding students to discover for themselves fundamental patterns and principles of ecology, conservation biology, and evolutionary biology.  We want to make it available for elementary education as well as for college students and the general public. To adapt our web materials for science instruction to 5th and 6th graders, we are working with a team of faculty and students from the School of Education to reformat text for a younger audience and to create interesting and fun activities for kids that teach them how scientists think about the world.  The result will be a series of classroom activities that combine the Animal Diversity Web with field experiences.  The first of these activities will be tried in local schools starting this fall, but within a few years we expect to be providing materials to a nationwide audience.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
We are looking for help in several areas.  First, we hope to find UROP students who can help us modify the natural history information currently on the website to make it more appropriate and interesting to a younger audience.  This will involve writing and library research.  There may also be opportunities for students with programming skills to help create templates and scripts to streamline the "translation" process.  We also are looking for students who are interested in writing "species accounts."  These accounts, written for a general audience, describe the natural history of individual species of animals.  Writing them involves doing research both in the library and on the Web.

Sample Project 6: Cycles in Ocean Sediments - The Heartbeat of Climate Change

Project Objective:
Sediments that accumulate in the ocean yield clues about climates and environmental conditions of the past. Cyclical changes in sediment composition reveal that climate has changed often and regularly throughout the history of our planet and has affected life in the oceans. Organic matter, which is created by plants and animals, gives evidence of the amounts and kinds of organisms that formerly populated areas, and some biota provide environment-specific information. Cores of sediments from the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean are being studied to identify the timing and nature of natural climate changes caused thousands and even millions of years ago. The amounts and types of biological residues are inferred through determinations of the elemental, isotopic, and molecular compositions of organic matter in samples from sediment cores. Samples are prepared for analysis by a variety of laboratory procedures. Instruments that are used are a CHNS elemental analyzer and a gas chromatograph. The resulting data are entered into spreadsheets for calculations and then transferred into graphic software to identify age-related patterns.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
Students will be responsible for preparing samples for analyses and for performing the actual analyses. They will collate and plot their data, and they will write a report on what they did and what it tells us about the impacts of past climate changes on the history of life at the location they have studied.

Sample Project 7: Effect of turbulence on E.coli viability

Project Objective:
The purpose of this project is to quantify the flow parameters of E. Coli by performing laboratory experiments. The set-up is a jet discharging into a larger tank. E.coli is collected at different locations and allowed to grow for 48 hours. Then, E.coli colonies are quantified.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
Perform the lab experiment and assist in the data analysis.