NSF grant boosts local geology education


Armed with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, UNC Pembroke Professor Martin Farley aims to raise geological science awareness in a region without visible rocks.


Dr. Farley with a map of eastern North Carolina aquifers.

Dr. Farley with a map of eastern North Carolina aquifers.

UNCP was awarded a two-year, $98,023 grant for which Dr. Farley, chair of the Department of Geology and Geography, is principal investigator. It is an outreach program into the Robeson County public schools called “Life of the Aquifer.”

Dr. Farley, Dr. Lee Phillips, also a UNCP geologist, and Rachel McBroom, UNCP’s science education coordinator, will instruct 15 high school earth science teachers this summer in the mysteries of the region’s deep underground water.

“The main purpose of the grant is to improve the quality of earth science instruction in the Public Schools of Robeson County,” Dr. Farley said. “We will use local groundwater data to introduce students of underrepresented groups to geology.”

Geological awareness is low in the Coastal Plains with good reason, Dr. Farley said.

“You can’t see rocks in the Coastal Plains, but they are here, and they are important to people’s lives,” he said. “Every time you turn on the faucet, you should think about geology.”

It’s the solid geology that makes the liquid benefits possible, he said.

“An aquifer is rock below the surface that has water in it,” Dr. Farley said. “Some of it is close to the surface, and some is in deep aquifers.”

Dr. Farley’s group will use state and federal data to analyze underground water in the region.
“ We don’t know a lot of detail about the aquifers here, but we know it’s an important economic resource,” he said. “There is a concern about the amount of water that can be drawn from local aquifers, and this is an opportunity to teach students about an issue before it becomes a problem.”

The project will take data on water levels from wells in the region and drill a few holes of its own.

“There is considerable recent data available, and historic data is available on the Web,” he said. “We also hope to drill test wells at each of the high schools in Robeson County.”

Teachers participating in the program, which begins in July, will also receive active-learning lesson plans for the classroom and materials such as aquifer rocks, minerals and maps. Students and their teachers will be able to chart water levels over time and create their own maps.

“There isn’t enough information about ground water out there, so high school students will contribute to the available scientific data,” Dr. Farley said.

Several deep aquifers provide the Robeson County’s drinking water and for large industry such as the Smithfield Foods’ hog slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., and Campbell Soup Company in Maxton, N.C. There are two aquifers here - the Black Creek Aquifer around 80-feet below the surface in Robeson County and the Cape Fear Aquifer about 400-feet deep.

Typically, an aquifer stores water in sand and other porous rock that is sandwiched between layers of non-porous rock. Aquifers are tilted downward toward the coast. Robeson’s aquifers fill west of the county where they are close to the surface near the “fall line” that separates the Coastal Plain from the rockier Piedmont.

A recent event demonstrates the significance of Robeson’s underground water supply, Dr. Farley said.

“During the drought of 2002, there were water shortages in Moore and Cumberland counties, but not here,” he said. “Not many people knew why.”

With Dr. Farley’s help, the region and its students will gain a better understanding of the geology and the water that lies unseen below the surface.

For more information about the Life of the Aquifer program, please call UNCP Department of Geology and Geography at 910.521.6478 or email martin.farley@uncp.edu.