Covering 266 acres of rocky pasture, oak savannah and cedar-covered hillsides, the White Family Outdoor Learning Center is classic Hill Country. South Onion Creek bisects the ranch, providing a nice water source for the cattle that until recently grazed this property outside of Dripping Springs. There’s even a 1920s-era windmill near what’s left of the old homestead. It’s a beautiful piece of history.
But when David Mohrig, the Jackson School of Geosciences’ associate dean for research, scans the property, it’s not the past staring back at him. It’s the future. The donation of the land to the Jackson School is a game changer for immersive education. It’s a place where generations of Jackson School students will be able to learn how to conduct field science of all sorts, with their observations and measurements providing new data about the karst geology that underlies and influences the Hill Country landscape and its residents.
“The White family property will allow the school to make long-term environmental observations that will be truly cross-disciplinary,” Mohrig said. “Our challenge now is to develop a protocol for how to use the land and leave a minimal footprint, so it can really be used for generations to come.”
The property has been described as a living classroom. Its acreage, now owned and controlled by the Jackson School, is within an hour’s drive of campus, which means scientists and students have easy access for research and fieldwork. This is a big deal for a school that emphasizes fieldwork and hands-on science as a foundational part of its world-class geosciences education.
The property also fits in perfectly with the Jackson School’s new research focuses. The school just completed its strategic plan, a document years in the making, that will act as a road map for moving the school forward during the next decade (see page 106). The sweeping plan outlines an expansive set of research priorities. Among them is establishing a Texas Observatory that, the plan states, “focuses on the science and human impacts of water, weather, surface processes, energy resources, tectonics, and geochemistry on the state of Texas.”
The Texas Observatory will be a network of strategically placed research sites across the state that can be accessed over the long term, and places where scientists can study and gather data on all the intricate and interconnected processes that affect the land, water and atmosphere. With the donation of the White Family Outdoor Learning Center, the school is on the way to building that network.
“The White family property is a gem of the observatories in that it will be the first one,” Mohrig said. “Everyone realizes the benefit of these long-term observatories now, but no single institution has been as bold as our strategic plan is to try to get something like this going. We have to lay baselines of integrated data to understand what will happen in the next 50 years.
Who better to collect it than the Jackson School?”
The Texas Observatory is part of an effort to conduct long-term interdisciplinary research on the Earth and all of its processes. This effort enhances the school’s evolving mission of tackling the big, hard issues facing Texas and the world. These issues include how to manage scarce water resources in the face of a booming population or, conversely, how to determine when heavy rains will turn into dangerous floods.
The Jackson School codified this approach in the new strategic plan. And the university as a whole has followed suit, kicking off its first Bridging Barriers grand research challenge with Planet Texas 2050, a project that seeks to understand environmental and energy challenges facing the state in the near future, in which the Jackson School is playing a major role.
Long-term access to key research sites is essential for conducting the type of science that provides the knowledge and understanding of ecological and hydrological processes that are at the root of big issues facing the state. The Whites said they are excited that their donation of property will be helping make that long-term research possible, all while educating students in the process.
Leslie P. White, a Waco native, came to The University of Texas at Austin in 1951 to study geology, which he figured was a reasonable choice for a young man looking for a career. Along the way, he fell in love with the science and the university itself, which he talks about like an extended family. Giving back to future generations so they can make the same type of connections that he did, both scientifically and personally, is exactly what he had in mind when he decided to donate the property.
“Geologists need to be outside,” White said. “They need to see geology where it lives. It thrills me to think about all the young people that will be out here.”
The Jackson School is still determining exactly how it will incorporate the property into its curriculum, but plans are to use it for all levels from freshmen on. Students have already taken advantage of the donation. The hydrology field camp spent a day on the property in May 2018 before traveling to New Mexico. During that single day, they were able to stream gauge, look at soil processes, soil moisture and soil water tension, and practice some ecohydrological monitoring techniques, specifically using a pressure chamber to look at water saturation in leaves.
Ph.D. candidate Stephen Ferencz helped conduct the camp. He said he was blown away by the property and the opportunities it offers for education and research.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “We were sizing up the property, and the idea of doing a weeklong field camp here is definitely feasible. There is so much you can look at. The idea of driving an hour instead of 14 hours to New Mexico, it’s an opportunity to have a field experience that is so rich but also very local.”
Assistant Professor Daniella Rempe led the camp with Ashley Matheny, another assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. Rempe has made groundbreaking discoveries on the role rock moisture can play in helping trees survive extended droughts in certain geological settings. The work was made possible by collecting long-term data in an observatory in Northern California while she was earning her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. Rempe said having access to a similar site here in Central Texas opens a new world of teaching and research opportunities.
She pointed out, for instance, that students will work on the Onion Creek watershed, which is already being monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey and has been modeled extensively by others at the university. She said this offers students the chance to have their work applied to projects such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s national water model, a hydrologic model that is being developed to simulate and forecast streamflow over the entire continental United States.
“We’re able to extend what we learn here to much bigger projects that they may encounter in their research or professional lives,” Rempe said.
She also stressed that the observatory was going to be used for more than just collecting measurements. She envisions it as a spot for working on scientific issues and processes that can span from the pore space in rock and soils to the entire landscape, with time spans covering mere milliseconds to millions of years.
“As scientists, we’re uniquely suited to understand the processes that motivate our observations, not just make and share the observations,” Rempe said. “We’re thinking about these sites as places where we monitor over the long term and do hypothesis-driven science that fundamentally changes how we predict of the land, atmosphere, climate, hydrology and chemistry to change.”
Department Chair Charlie Kerans said the opportunities for students will go well beyond hydrology. The advantages of ready access to a field site can’t be overstated for most geosciences disciplines, Kerans stressed.
The Jackson School prides itself on offering field opportunities at every level of education. This is often accomplished by traveling hundreds or thousands of miles and by spending untold hours building relationships with landowners and negotiating access. With the White family property, those issues don’t exist.
“To me, there is a big upside in that we have a place where we can set up shop and do different types of geology and not worry about losing land access,” he said. “I know that being able to go out and work through the exposures and the creek beds and build the stratigraphy will be a fun and useful project.”
There are other observatories of this kind across the country, but this is the first one that is in a carbonate domain, which, according to Mohrig, makes it uniquely important for studying and understanding karst ecology and geology. The overall strategy for the Texas Observatory network is to expand across the state to encompass its diverse geological and ecological settings. The plan calls for four sites, with two in Central Texas, one in East Texas near the coast and one in West Texas. Discussions are in the works for the other three.
Now that the White family donation is complete, the first job is determining which instruments to install to start collecting data, Mohrig said. On the initial wish list are an eddy flux tower to monitor local meteorology and instruments to monitor streamflow, soil moisture, deep and shallow groundwater, and some of the local ecology. Much will come down to funding opportunities, as do long-term plans for a learning facility of some sort. But the Jackson School is going to focus on getting students to the property as soon and often as possible to learn science in a real-world environment where things aren’t as nice and tidy as they are in a lab or classroom.
In learning how to be a scientist, Mohrig said, messy can be good.
“I think we have a tendency to train scientists to think that if they work hard enough, they can see change very clearly and isolate it from other things,” he said. “But the fact is that going out into the field, you realize that all these things are connected. It’s not a laboratory setting where everything is set up to isolate a particular signal.”
Understanding that interconnectivity is vital, particularly when trying to track issues such as environmental change. This type of science often involves studying large systems where variability in the data can be massive. The classic example, Mohrig said, is climate change, where the overall trend shows warming over the whole globe, yet there are some areas experiencing more severe winters. The next generation of geoscientists will need to understand how to collect that type of data, analyze it and be comfortable working with it and explaining it to a wide variety of audiences.
“We talk more and more about environmental change, but we can’t do it without recognizing that the change is nested in variability that in many cases is as large as the change itself,” he said. “When you’re thinking about the Earth’s surface and that system, that variability is as much the signal of what’s happening as the mean.”
No matter which directions future research goes, White is confident that his family’s property will play an important role in the future of Jackson School students and their professors. White said his life was significantly influenced by his professors, particularly Stephen Clabaugh, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. He stressed this impact to Rempe, urging her not to undervalue the impact she will have on her students.
Rempe said she knows exactly what he is referring to. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas in 2008 and fondly remembers learning from Jackson School hydrology Professor Bayani Cardenas and now retired Professor Jack Sharp. She said that her experience conducting research in the field with these two professors was one of the main reasons she jumped at the chance to return to the university as a faculty member.
“The science is important, but the relationships that you develop through that science are as important,” White said. “That tells the story of why we’re making this donation.”