StREAM Lab creates a healthy future for historic Stroubles Creek

The StREAM is one of the most unique learning and research laboratories in the country.

The StREAM is one of the most unique learning and research laboratories in the country.

By Zeke Barlow

You can’t talk about the history of Blacksburg — or the campus of Virginia Tech — without talking about Stroubles Creek.

The original 16 square blocks that defined the town of Blacksburg were outlined in the late 1700s based on the location of the springs that create Stroubles Creek. The water leaves downtown and flows under campus and the Drillfield before it travels southwest and creates the Duck Pond.

From there it is pinched between roads and under Route 460 before reaching the old Heth farm property, where a dedicated group of researchers and students want to make sure the future of the creek is a healthy one for the historic waterway.

Since 2010, the Stream Research, Education, and Management (StREAM) Lab has been a steward of the creek as well as a living classroom where students can conduct research in a setting unlike any other in the country. The lab consists of more than 50 acres of riparian habitat where red-winged blackbirds and swallows flit along the streambed as students conduct some of the most unique research in the country.

“This is a very rare environment that gives both undergraduate and graduate students access to a laboratory where they can do research on issues facing watersheds around the world,” said Cully Hession, the director of the program and a professor of biological systems engineering. “It connects students to the issues they will be facing after graduation and gives them an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

While students at other universities may get to study hydrology or sediment flow in a textbook, at the Virginia Tech StREAM Lab they get to strap on a pair of waders and head out to the creek where they find out firsthand what it is like to work on a waterway. They also use other nearby streams and creeks in their work.

More than 16 classes from across campus use the lab for field excursions and research projects that involve everything from engineering hydraulics to measuring the impact of livestock. More than 20 graduate students have done all or portions of their master’s or Ph.D. research with data from the creek, and, in doing so, they have created new insights on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of livestock grazing on watersheds, and sediment fate and transport, among other things. Another project is developing a data visualization of the stream using 3-D and virtual reality equipment.

Faculty from a host of disciplines collaborate on smaller projects at this research “common” that allows them to successfully bring in large research grants they couldn’t get without working as a team with the stream as their laboratory.

In years to come, Hession wants to foster more involvement with local schools and community residents so they can learn about and be a part of the future of the creek that has such a storied history at Virginia Tech.