The Rain Project – An Interview with Dr. Changwoo Ahn
The Rain Project – An Interview with Changwoo Ahn, STEAM Table Newsletter Issue 4, March 2015.
STEAM Table: Changwoo, we’ve been hearing about this floating wetland installation for a few weeks now. Tell us what it’s all about.
Changwoo Ahn: I designed The Rain Project as an experiment and case study of what EcoScience + Art holds for college education, scholarship, and service. Students participate in a project-based learning approach aimed at developing innovative interdisciplinary education and scholarship. The goal is to raise awareness of critical stormwater issues for the Mason community, by means of a year-long project (Fall 2014 through Fall 2015) in which science collaborates with engineering, arts, and humanities in order to design and implement a floating wetland in Mason Pond.
ST: This seems tailor-made for STEM-to-STEAM initiatives. Why is this project important?
CA: We live in an era of climate change. Climate change is a story of water, especially rainwater. Water is the way in which people experience climate change, especially through cycles of droughts and floods. Stormwater management issues, combined with an urgent need to be storm-ready, demand creative solutions.
Many US cities turn to green initiatives, looking for new techniques and innovative infrastructure that mimics the way nature collects and cleanses water. Our Rain Project involves undergraduates building the floating wetland to improve water quality and stormwater management in Mason pond. Last fall, a student leadership group was formed across all disciplines on the campus to work on design, implementation, documentation, and outreach phases of the rain project.
ST: We all want cleaner water. How will it work?
CA: This project will involve research and experiential learning. The wetlands require structural rigidity as well as buoyancy. It must be flexible in order to harness a variety of ecological/biogeochemical processes to clean the water by removing nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus), too much of which often leads to algal bloom and degraded water quality in stormwater ponds. Therefore, artful design can be functional only when based upon an understanding of scientific processes involved. I have been working with the students monitoring water quality in Mason Pond since last fall to get a baseline dataset, and we will continue more intensively once the floating wetland is launched (scheduled on May 8) to evaluate water quality improvement through the wetland. We have completed the design of the floating wetland being built, which will be hydroponic. The rootzone of wetland plants will remove nutrients and sediments in the pond water. A floating wetland will also provide a number of aquatic biota with much needed habitats. We also plan to harvest the plants at the end of the growing season to analyze the tissue concentrations of nutrients to learn how much biomass and nutrient uptake take place. Harvested plants can be processed to become natural fertilizer for organic food gardens. Later this week, I am meeting a student researcher from the campus food garden to discuss this.
A couple of student members of the group are currently working with me to record and document some of the major steps in the project to share the experience and information we learn in the near future. The project outcome will test and showcase a new curriculum model incorporating arts, environmental science, and infrastructure engineering. I envision a research and scholarship-intensive green course for undergraduate capstone experiences sometime in 2016.
ST: We see signs of a movement at Mason toward interdisciplinary collaboration across the entire campus. The Rain Project appears to be an important early step toward this mandate. We look forward to learning more as your plans proceed.
CA: We are only now looking at ways in which students, faculty and administrators can collaborate on these types of projects, to better serve Mason and the greater community. I am planning a workshop to share the experience and outcomes of the project with the entire campus and local community after the project gets completed.
Changwoo Ahn is an Associate Professor in the College of Science’s Environmental Science and Policy Department at George Mason University, and is the Founder and Director of EcoScience+Art (http://ecoscienceplusart.wordpress.com/)