The Columns

Going With the Flow Will Schirmer ’20 investigates the fluid dynamics of periodic water surges.

— by on July 28th, 2017

Will Schirmer ’20 uses a high-speed camera, laser and a light-detecting chip to measure the rate of water flow through a corrugated channel.

“We have spent a large portion of our lab time working to improve our methods of collecting data and improving our scientific procedure. Being able to explore this new aspect of scientific experimentation under Professor’s Kuehner’s guidance has greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the research process.”

—Will Schirmer ’20

Hometown: Southern Pines, North Carolina
Major: Undecided

Q: What is your summer research project?
This summer I am working with Professor Kuehner (physics and engineering) and Matt Dodson ’20 to explore a fluid dynamics phenomenon that Professor Kuehner first observed in the field. We are currently working to characterize the periodic surging that occurs when a steady flow of water enters a corrugated channel. To analyze this phenomenon, we are varying channel dimensions, such as wavelength between corrugations and depth of each corrugation, angle of inclination, and flow rate of water entering the channel. We are then collecting data for each variation using a high-speed camera, laser and a light-detecting chip.

Throughout the world spillways are used to release water from dammed waterways. Many of these spillways are separated into many large steps that slow the momentum of the water as it flows down the spillway. In theory, the steps should slow the momentum which in turn prevents the erosion of the spillway and terrain below it. However, in some cases the geometry of the stepped spillways can mimic a corrugated channel resulting in the development large surges of water in the spillway. The surges that arise from relatively low flows of water can then cause great damage to the spillway itself and increase erosion in the surrounding terrain.

Corrugated piping is also used in many natural environments, such as parks or national forests, to direct small streams under roadways or pathways. For many years it was assumed that the corrugated channels cause little impact on the stream ecosystem, but if surging develops in the pipes there could be major disruption. The surging that occurs would prevent many microorganisms and insects from traveling up the stream. In addition, the surging could cause large amounts of erosion as the relatively low flow entering the channel is concentrated into surges, which results in larger flows of water exiting the channel.

Q: What does an average day for you look like?
Matt and I meet with Professor Kuehner in the morning to discuss our progress from the previous day and to plan for further experimentation. After this meeting, our daily activities vary. Some days our time is dominated by collecting data, while on other days we work to improve our experimental method, analyze data or investigate areas for further study.

Q: What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?
In most introductory lab courses you are taught the basics of experimentation, in which you learn that one must create a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, analyze results, possibly revise one’s procedure and, finally, make conclusions. In most courses the importance of revising one’s procedure is greatly overlooked due to constraints on time. However, this summer I have come to attribute great value to this step in scientific experimentation, as it is of great importance when designing one’s own experiments. We have spent a large portion of our lab time working to improve our methods of collecting data and improving our scientific procedure. Being able to explore this new aspect of scientific experimentation under Professor’s Kuehner’s guidance has greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the research process.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?
The greatest challenge was the level of independence that Professor Kuehner gave us in our research. While we would meet in the morning almost every day, many days these meetings consisted of a short check-in, where Matt and I were able to pitch our latest ideas to Professor Kuehner. Often, he would provide a small amount of feedback or suggest that we pursue one of our ideas and see where it took us. This left much of the details of our procedure and direction to our own discretion. The freedom he allowed us helped me enjoy my time in the lab as well as furthering my knowledge of the material.

Q: Have you had any mentors during this time?
Professor Kuehner has been an invaluable resource this summer. In the weeks that I have worked with him, he has adapted to my needs as a research assistant and as an individual. At the beginning of the summer he would frequently check in to answer any question that we had, as well as providing advice to direct our research. As we became more competent, he has encouraged us to develop our own ideas, which has furthered our confidence in the lab.

Q: Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?
As an undecided major at this point in my studies, being able to conduct research has helped me to imagine what conducting research in graduate school might resemble. This experience has helped me narrow my academic focus.

Q: How did W&L prepare you for this experience?
The small academic setting, which encourages students to ask questions, has helped me immensely. Without the inquisitive spirit that has been cultivated in each of my classes over my first year at W&L, I would have had much more trouble adjusting to the research atmosphere and lost many opportunities to learn from my mentors.

Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?
W&L prides itself on providing a liberal arts experience that prepares students for life after university. While our small class sizes and close relationships with professors help to work toward this goal, I believe it is the activities, such as research, work experiences and individual creation, that enable us to smoothly transition to graduate school, the workforce or other pursuits.