Anthropology class studies feasibility of rain barrel project

Release Date: 5/7/2013

According to the National Weather Service, the summer of 2012 was the tenth driest summer on record for Arkansas, with the months of April through July being the driest ever recorded for the state. The drought was already categorized as "extreme" by mid- June, and the lack of rainfall made many people think about how important our water supply is, and about ways to conserve water.

Sara Sisemore, a self-professed nature lover, was one of the people. "I like having living stuff in my room!" she said. "I tried to do fish last year, but that didn't really work for me. So I have plants." The sophomore from Pelsor, Ark. knew from past experience that rainwater is the best water to use on plants - it's naturally soft water, without minerals, chorine, fluoride, and other chemicals. "I wanted to do something green, and I've seen the sprinklers and how much water we use on that. I thought [installing rain barrels] would be a good idea - a good way to save something," she explained.

A rain barrel is, quite simply, a barrel used to collect and store rainwater. They are typically installed at the bottom of a gutter system downspout to capture runoff from the roof of a building. Many home rain barrel systems use plastic barrels which hold 55 gallons of liquid - given a 1000 sq. ft. roof catchment area, these barrels can be filled by as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain! The collected water can then be used for things like irrigating landscaping beds, reducing the amount of treated water that has to be drawn from the municipal water system. Directing rainwater into barrels can also significantly cut down on soil erosion and flooding in low-lying areas.

Encouraged by the reactions she got to the idea, Sisemore presented it to the Student Government Association, asking if they would be in support of a Planet Club initiative to install rain barrels on campus. With a preliminary "yes" from SGA, she then brought up the idea to Lauren Ray, president of Planet Club.

As it turned out, the timing for Sisemore's proposal couldn't have been better. "[Planet Club] really wanted to take that on, but we didn't know where to start," said Ray. "So when our Applied Anthropology class started trying to come up with ideas for a Rapid Assessment Procedure project, I kind of pushed that idea - why don't we do this for our class project because it is something Planet Club really wants to do too."

The Rapid Assessment Procedure project was an assignment given to the entire class by Dr. Kristin Hedges, who taught the Applied Anthropology course. R.A.P. is a technique used to investigate problems or solutions when time isn't available for long-term research. It involves collaboration between members of an interdisciplinary team to collect and analyze data, and allows the researchers to quickly gain a preliminary understanding of the problem from the viewpoint of the stakeholders.

"All semester [the students] have been learning how anthropological skills can be used in the real world, and on different issues," Hedges said. "They've really been focusing on how important it is to talk to local people and really understand the culture, and talk to stakeholders, and get people's opinions before you implement a project, if you want it to be sustainable."

The students in the class, Noah Holle, a freshman biology major from Enid, Okla.; Caitlin Lambert, a senior sociology major, from Waldron, Ark.; Evan Meagher, a senior business management major from Lafayette, La.; Lauren Ray, a senior environmental studies major from Springdale, Ark.; Anaeli Rodas, a sophomore sociology and strategic communication major from Guatemala City, Guatemala; and Karlye Tolley, a junior psychology major, from Clarksville, Ark., decided to take on Planet Club as their "client" and conduct a R.A.P. to determine the feasibility of the proposed rain barrel initiative.

The objective was to allow campus and community stakeholders to provide their thoughts and inputs on the project; to calculate the costs and benefits; and evaluate the overall feasibility of installing rain barrels on the campus. Was this something that would benefit the campus, and more importantly, was it something the campus community would support?

Kristin Hedges with students in her Applied Anthropology class.

Kristin Hedges, instructor of anthropology (left) and the students in her Applied Anthropology class (Karlye Tolley, Noah Holle, Lauren Ray, Anaeli Rodas and Caitlin Lambert) show the barrel which will be used for the pilot rain barrel project on the Ozarks campus.

The team started their R.A.P. by observing and making notes about the campus gutter system. They determined how many down spouts were available, and made note of the drains that emptied directly into the storm drains. After they had completed these observations, they interviewed Mike Qualls and Jeannett Willis from the campus maintenance department to gain their perspective on the project. Buy-in from maintenance would be critical to the success of the project, since they would be the ones responsible for installing and maintaining the barrels.

Qualls and Willis were both very supportive of the idea, so the team expanded the scope of their interviews to other key stake holders. They interviewed Dr. Doug Jeffries, Dr. Kim Van Scoy, Mr. Jamie Hedges, and Ms. Lynne Slater, all individuals who are actively involved in environmental issues on campus. They also interviewed Darrell Williams, University business manager, to assess the level of support from the University administration, and to determine, from his perspective, how much support the maintenance department would be able to provide for the project.

"We gathered enough information that encouraged us to continue with the project," Rodas said. "During Earth Week, we were able to hand out some surveys to get a better picture of what the people here on campus thought about how beneficial it would be for the campus and the community." Hedges encouraged the team members to talk with others, conduct informal interviews and pass out surveys whenever they had the opportunity. The team members interviewed more than 80 people in several locations, including the campus dining hall, at sports events, in classrooms, and at the KXIO Coffee House.

That method paid off for them an unexpected way. One day, as Lambert was handing out surveys and conducting informal qualitative interviews, she discovered a local source to supply the rain barrels for the project. If the project proved to be feasible, Planet Club would be able to purchase 20 rain barrels from this local supplier, ready to install, for less than $850.

Ozarks first rain barrel.

Ozarks first rain barrel has been installed by one of the campus apartments. The barrel will be used in a pilot project conducted by Planet Club.

Within a few weeks, the data collection phase of the project was completed, and the team began analyzing the information. While there were a few individuals who expressed concern about the long-term viability of the initiative and about aesthetics of the barrels, the team found that the rain barrel project had strong support both on campus and in the surrounding community. More than 78% of those surveyed perceived the project as being both environmentally and economically beneficial, while more than 90% believed that environmental sustainability should be an important goal and that the implementation of rain barrels may be a key way to start.

The team reviewed the findings from the R.A.P. during a presentation on Friday, May 3. And while their part in the project ended when they handed their results over to their client, Planet Club, they were all excited to announce during the presentation that Planet Club had been given the go-ahead to install a single rain barrel by the campus apartments as a pilot project. A member of the R.A.P. team had donated a rain barrel to be used in the pilot test and by Monday afternoon, the University's maintenance crew had completed the work to place the first barrel and modify the downspout. The outcome of this pilot project will help determine the viability of a broader rain barrel installation on campus.

That first rain barrel probably won't sit empty for long. This week's forecast calls for a chance of rain starting on Wednesday and continuing through the weekend.

Hedges was proud of the students' work, not only in conducting the R.A.P., but in following through with actually getting the pilot rain barrel installed. "The students did an excellent job on the R.A.P.," she said. "They were able to identify, interview, and collaborate with key stakeholders and the wider campus on the project. This careful planning and process not only resulted in the knowledge of wide support for the project, but will also contribute to long-term sustainability of rain barrels."