On a pleasantly cool morning in late April, six Trinity University students started their day with coffee brewed on a propane stove. They had camped the previous night, tents set up in a field an hour’s drive southeast of Dallas. From sunup to the early evening, the students conducted experiments on the ground—and water—beneath their feet, working alongside their professor and the Trinity alumnus whose passion, generosity, and joy made the weekend of hands-on learning possible.
Named for an influential Trinity geology professor, the Edward C. Roy, Jr. Groundwater Training Center is the brainchild of David Shiels, a 1983 Trinity graduate and hydrogeologist. The facility offers students the opportunity to conduct field work on a water-bearing aquifer, taking what they’ve learned in the classroom and putting it into practice.
Shiels and his wife of 35 years, Carol (a geological engineer), live and work on a 640-acre ranch near Kaufman, Texas, that has been in their family since 1851. The couple also runs their own environmental engineering and consulting company. Shiels always knew there was something special about the land, which today is home to more than 100 cows, horses, and sheep (in addition to their two Great Pyrenees guardians). A stand of pecan trees, healthy and thriving even through seasons of drought, led him to suspect there was a source of subterranean water. He discussed his theory with geosciences professor Brady Ziegler, Ph.D., while on an alumni field trip organized by the Department of Geosciences during Alumni Weekend 2019, as the University celebrated its 150th anniversary.
On February 29, 2020, Shiels invited Ziegler to bring a group of Trinity students to observe as he had a well drilled on his land. Cold, clear water soon started to flow, confirming his prediction that an aquifer lurked below the surface. The trip took place the weekend before students left for spring break – and just as normal life came screeching to a halt. Because of the pandemic, students did not return to campus after the break. That Leap Day visit to Shiels’ land would be their last until April 2022.
This spring’s research group conducts a slug test: The slug, a heavy plastic cylinder connected to a rope, raises the water level in the well when lowered in. Then, researchers measure how quickly the water level drops back to its initial level as it flows back out into the surrounding aquifer.
Unparalleled Experiential Learning
Excited to once again host visitors, and eager to share his zeal for hydrogeology with students, Shiels drilled three more wells into the shallow, sandy formation, which Ziegler says presents the perfect introduction to working with a real aquifer. After finding that all four wells were saturated with water and interconnected, “I told Brady, ‘We hit the jackpot, buddy,’” Shiels recalls. “If I were a hydrogeology teacher, I’d want my kids out there collecting groundwater samples, crunching data, and actually doing the chemistry themselves. And that’s what they did all weekend long, sunup to sundown. I could barely get them to stop and eat my barbecue!”
Over the course of the weekend, the six students, working in small groups, conducted a variety of tests to measure the aquifer’s hydraulic conductivity—that is, how well water flows through it—as well as its chemical properties, such as dissolved oxygen, iron concentration, pH, and alkalinity. They were utilizing skills that they had learned throughout the semester in Ziegler’s hydrogeology class. “You can do math all day long,” says the assistant professor, “but when you get out into the field and actually start to see displacement in the well, it’s a unique experience.”
Luke Stuart ’22, an environmental geosciences major from Lubbock, Texas, agreed. “I hadn’t ever seen water pumped out of the ground, and honestly it was really spectacular.”
David Shiels ’83 explains the concept of an aquifer pumping test to the Spring 2022 student researchers. In the background, George Bradley and Luke Stuart are measuring the water level drop in the adjacent well while the other well is pumped.
Time flew by as the students worked on the wells. “We were always on the move,” says Stuart. “None of us even looked at the time, and before we knew it, the day was over.” Even the smell of brisket wafting over the field couldn’t distract them—well, not too much, anyway. A consummate host, Shiels had fired up his smoker just before dawn to prepare that night’s dinner for the group. “We could smell it out in the field, and sometimes the thermometer would be beeping along with the sound of our slug test,” recalls Zoe Grout ’22, an English major from Houston, who minored in geosciences and religion. “I’m not usually a barbecue person, but it was insanely good.”
The groundwater training center offers unmatched opportunities to engage in experiential learning, with clear and direct benefits for students’ postgraduate lives. “Most people coming out of bachelor’s programs have not done this kind of hands-on work before, so the fact that they have gives them a leg up in the job market,” says Ziegler, explaining that many entry-level jobs in the geosciences, such as working in environmental consulting or remediation, include field work.
Shiels himself came to be an expert in groundwater characterization by learning on the job. “It took me several years in the school of hard knocks, learning on the fly, to figure out the best way to do these aquifer tests,” he says. On his property, he’s hoping to streamline the process for future generations.
Zoe Grout, Jessica Mau, and Jack Avolio measure dissolved iron in water pumped from a well. The amount of iron in groundwater is an important measurement for drinking water quality.
“David made it very comfortable for us to explore the wells, to make mistakes, and to see what all the things we learned in class look like in person,” Stuart says. “The chance to do something like this when the stakes are low—before we’re working for a company or organization—is extremely valuable.”
In addition to the intellectual and practical benefits, the experience also represented a return to normalcy for a group of students who have spent much of the last two years learning remotely. “Field trips are part of what makes this department so special,” says Grout. “Eating, working, camping together—it was a really great bonding experience. We lost a lot to the pandemic, but we’re getting it back.”
Deepening Friendships and Discovering Passions
Shiels’ time at Trinity and the friendships he made on campus laid the foundations for his professional trajectory. Though he initially planned to study business, a conversation with his geology major suitemate piqued his interest in the department. After Shiels, an outdoorsy Eagle Scout, took a class on the geology of the national parks with professor Walter Coppinger, Ph.D., he was hooked. “I ate it up,” he says. “I fell in love with geology.”
That sort of accidental entry to the department is familiar to many geoscience students. “You take a class and are fascinated by it,” says Stuart, who came to Trinity as an engineering science major. For him, a course with professor Kathleen Surpless, Ph.D., on solid earth processes introduced him to the world of earth systems science. Likewise, Grout, with interdisciplinary interests and a love of STEM, found her way to a geosciences minor after taking “Earth’s Environmental Systems”—coincidentally, also with Ziegler. “The more classes I took in the department, the more interested I became,” she says.
The research team, who spent the entire weekend together in tents at the training site, developed friendships and bonds that will last a lifetime.
For Shiels, the mentorship of late professor Edward C. Roy Jr.—the training center’s namesake—had a profound impact on his education and life. Roy, who received both his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in geology from the Ohio State University, joined Trinity’s faculty in 1966. He chaired the geology department from 1978 to 1984 before going on to serve as vice president of academic affairs for 12 years. The beloved educator returned to the department in 1999 and held the position of Gertrude and Walter Pyron Distinguished Professor of Geology until his retirement in 2005. Roy died in 2007 at the age of 71.
“Dr. Roy treated us like his kids,” says Shiels. “I wasn’t a straight-A student like Scott Tinker”—a friend and 1982 Trinity graduate who now serves as the state geologist of Texas and sits on Trinity’s Board of Trustees—“but Dr. Roy knew that I was passionate and loved geology, and that meant just as much to him.” Shiels recalls that at his induction into the earth sciences honor society, Sigma Gamma Epsilon, Roy urged the students to continue advancing the sciences and give back in whatever way they could. “When Carol and I saw that we had this opportunity at the ranch, I knew this was what we needed to do—what Dr. Roy would have wanted us to do,” says Shiels. Naming the facility for the professor who inspired him and fostered his love of geology was the natural choice. “It couldn’t be called anything else!”
Brady Zigler and David Shiels connect a pumping well to an apparatus that measures water quality parameters—temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and total dissolved solids—in real time.
Going Forth and Giving Back
The future looks bright for the groundwater training center. Shiels has plans to open the property to students from other colleges and universities, and possibly even emerging professionals from around the state. As he told his wife, “Staying in touch with young folks is going to keep us young. And what better young people than young geologists!”
But he’s perhaps most excited about hosting the next group of hydrogeologists-in-training from his alma mater. “We had it so good at Trinity,” he says, fondly remembering his own years on campus. “Being in the middle of it all, learning how to live life. Giving back in this way helps me keep feeling those feelings.”
Shiels’ passion made a profound impact on how the students who visited in April approached the weekend. “His enthusiasm was infectious,” says Grout. “The field work wasn’t just something I had to get through; it was something I was excited to participate in.” Their professor likewise noted the alum’s impressive commitment to the University. “The fact that he paid, out of his own pocket, to create this place for students is remarkable,” says Ziegler. “David and Carol deserve a lot of credit.”
“Everybody has something to give besides money,” Shiels says. “For us, it’s this.”
From left to right: Jessica Mau; Richard Silver, geosciences department lab and field technician; George Bradley; Luke Stuart; Mark Nickels; Jack Avolio; Brady Ziegler, geosciences professor; and Zoe Grout.