Thursday, September 6, 2007

Students research wetlands at environmental center through summer program

GOSHEN, Ind. – A summer as Goshen College Maple Scholars meant measuring the affect human hands can have on the earth for two environmental science majors, and more specifically about one of the earth’s natural water-cleansers: constructed wetlands.

Maple Scholars is an eight-week summer program in which students conduct independent research in various disciplines alongside a supervising Goshen College faculty member.

Sophomore Rachel Versluis (Ann Arbor, Mich.) and junior Elizabeth Buschert (Goshen) worked on a water-testing project with Lisa Zinn, environmental science educator at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, an educational nature preserve located about 45 minutes from the college near Wolf Lake, Ind.

“The intention of the study is to broaden our understanding of how constructed wetlands work and their effectiveness,” Versluis said. Constructed wetlands are primarily a natural way that wastewater can be cleaned. Merry Lea has two constructed wetlands that serve to clean the water used within the 1,150-acre learning center.

“There isn’t a whole lot of research out there on constructed wetlands and what they remove,” said Buschert. Therefore this study will be useful to many people and companies, when it is presented to them eventually as is planned, including to the company that built the constructed wetlands at Merry Lea.

To conduct their studies, the students spent most of each week living at Merry Lea, in Rieth Village, housing that was built last year primarily for student researchers. A few times a week, the scholars took samples of the water in the wetlands and measured the temperature and water level, and spent the day running tests on it, looking specifically for nitrates, phosphates, bacteria and triclosan, among other things.

According to Zinn, who is using the research as part of her doctoral dissertation, triclosan is something that has particular potential for new findings because “no one knows for sure” what happens when it gets into aquatic systems. Only recently have scientists been finding excess amounts of the compound in water sources that already have been cleaned. Buschert and Versluis are hoping to find some evidence as to whether or not the wetlands are effective at removing the triclosans.

Recently they flushed things like fertilizers that have phosphates, and antibacterial soaps that contain triclosans, down the toilets that empty into the wetlands to aid this determination. During the school year the soap would be entering the water through general human use, but since the buildings don’t have people staying in them, they had to simulate the contamination. And while fertilizers can cause buildups of phosphates that have negative effects, the amount they added was low enough that this was not a risk.

“We hope to see a trend in our results, which demonstrates that the wetlands are doing their job,” Versluis said. “Our prediction is that the constructed wetlands are working and do an adequate job in the wastewater removal process.”

“Eventually we’d like to publish the work so that the information is out there,” Zinn said. “It’s exciting for Rachel and Elizabeth to be a part of what will be a larger project that’s such useful and important information for our environment.”

The project that Versluis and Buschert began with their research is expected to take about two years to complete. They were both attracted to the possible implications of the project and glad to be a part of it. “I’m really interested in how people impact the environment,” Buschert said. “It is fascinating to study how humans can use more natural processes like constructed wetlands to reduce their impact on the environment.”

Versluis agreed. “Because water is so extremely intertwined with life and many of life’s processes, I am fascinated by it and always am looking for an opportunity to learn more.”

– by Kelli Yoder

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit

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