A summer irrigation lab and field course led by DWFI Faculty Fellow Derek Heeren helps his students ground their class lessons through in-person farm and industry visits. Heeren, also an Associate Professor and Irrigation Engineer in the UNL Department of Biological Systems Engineering (BSE), recently wrapped up teaching his latest field course with students from all over the world, including China, Sudan and Rwanda. For many of them this was their first introduction to farming in Nebraska.
In the course, which is sponsored by DWFI and BSE, students learn about wise management of water resources. This is done through studying the performance of different types of irrigation systems, sources, pipelines, well hydraulics and soil water properties. It also includes experiential components, such as field trip visits to water resource agencies, irrigation field research sites, and manufacturers and installers of agricultural irrigation systems. To do this, students travel across Nebraska, meeting with industry leaders in irrigation at Valmont, water managers from Nebraska Natural Resource Districts and farmers across the state.
“It was a great opportunity for me to have real-world experiences in the field,” said Jamie Duan, a DWFI-supported student who is studying irrigation systems and management in the BSE Department. She said that this course was an extension of the textbook knowledge she received in the classroom.
For example, Duan can study the equipment and equations which determine the flow rates of moving water, but it is another thing entirely to step into a creek, time a float moving downstream to estimate velocity, and plug the numbers herself. It adds another context and element of adventure to the work in the classroom. She also really enjoyed traveling through Nebraska, meeting other students and interacting with farmers.
Heeren’s course offers multiple aspects of scientific decision making. Moaz Ishag is a first-year master’s student at UNL in Mechanized Systems Management with the BSE Department, and says the class opened his mind to many new aspects of irrigation he had never considered before, such as the different agronomic factors of soil that should be taken into account in water applications.
Ishag was fascinated to learn that many different components of soil, such as soil texture, bulk density, tension, moisture and holding capacity, could factor into determining how much water to apply. This knowledge is critical to efficient water use, as applying water to the wrong soil conditions can lead to runoff and inadequate infiltration - and therefore less root water uptake by crops.
Jean Niwenshuti is a second-year master's student in Mechanized System Management and researching precision livestock management. He says the class also opened his mind to where water management might fit into other areas. Thanks to Dr. Heeren and this course, he wants to find ways to incorporate water management and sustainability into his work in precision management of animals.
Niwenshuti says, “the scope of precision animal management generally uses cutting-edge technology to reduce the cost of production for animal producers, and the class gave [me] ideas for finding environmentally friendly systems to manage animal waste in order to protect surface water.”
By teaching students applicable skills in water management, and introducing the experience of working with different stakeholders, Heeren inspires students to take on real-world challenges. Suhib Hamid, who is a first-year graduate student studying Mechanized Systems Management, says he wants to bring back initiatives for researchers and farmers to work together in his home country of Sudan, where the agricultural water source is the Nile River. He says that as water becomes more and more scarce, it is a valuable opportunity to come to Nebraska and talk to farmers about irrigation and how research can be applied in the field.
Heeren’s Irrigation Laboratory and Field Course is offered in the summers of even years and students earn three credit hours toward their degrees. Heeren holds various leadership roles with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, and recently published a textbook on Irrigation Systems Management. Other instructors who helped with the field course include Tom Franti, Ali Mohammed, and DWFI faculty fellows Aaron Mittelstet, Xin Qiao and Dean Eisenhower.