Splashing in puddles can be a wonderful childhood memory, but when water pools regularly on the playground it can put a damper on recess.

Thanks to a new technique developed by some University of Tennessee students over the past year, the kids at Carpenters Elementary School soon may have a well-drained playground.

The Blount County Board of Education last week gave its approval for a group of improvements at CES, a storage shed, sensory stations and a demonstration project of the soil improvement method just developed at UT. With grant funding, none of the improvements will cost the school district any money.

The efforts are spearheaded by Julie Konkel, watershed coordinator for the Blount County Soil Conservation District, who is working with several schools on improvements to outdoor learning areas.

Soil fracturing

Last year UT seniors Matthew Johnsen of Oak Ridge, James Lewis of Knoxville, Christian Patterson of Chattanooga and Ryan Watson of Brownsville, set out to solve the problem of ponding created when rain gardens are installed above heavily compacted soils, causing stormwater to pool instead of infiltrating the soil.

Adapting the hydraulic fracking used by the oil and gas industry, their solution uses compressed air to pump water and “biochar” — burned organic material — into the soil. It’s 100% organic, with no added chemicals, Konkel explained.

The treatment creates and holds space for water within the soil, with the organic material releasing it slowly.

“It’s a very new application of a relatively familiar technology,” Konkel said.

During construction the top layer of soil often is taken off, leaving clay with little space and organic material. After any heavy equipment leaves, even little feet pounding on the soil can further compact it, and the short grass that typically grows on playgrounds doesn’t develop deep roots to penetrate the soil either.

At Carpenters Elementary water has been pooling on parts of the basketball court and adjacent ground, and by the fence to the outdoor classroom and nature trail it can be ankle deep at times, Konkel said.

With the UT technique an insertion tube goes down about 3 feet and, depending on how compact the soil is each point can treat an area 10 to 20 feet in diameter. The work is expected to begin by September and take only about five days.

The UT students developed their concept last fall and then tested it on plots at UT’s East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center off Alcoa Highway, explained Andrea Ludwig, associate professor of biosystems engineering and soil science, as well as a UT Extension specialist.

The project, titled “Soil Fracking for Stormwater Infiltration Enhancement” won second place this spring at UT’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement. Last month it won first prize in the G.B Gunlogson Student Environmental Design Open Competition at the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers international meeting in Boston.

The students, who all graduated this year, were advised by associate professor John Tyner and senior lecturer Andrew Sherfy, both from UT’s Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science.

Over the summer Extension intern Jenna Williams, a rising senior, picked up where the students who graduated left off, testing it at three sites on campus and a rain garden in Powell, Ludwig said.

To test their concept the original team ordered biochar with a standard particle size. However, Ludwig said now they may be able to use a readily available material from East Tennessee, Lebanon’s Gasification Initiative, which burns waste wood and other products, creating electricity while reducing landfill use.

Activity stations

CES also will be adding several activity stations to its outdoor learning area, as well as a storage unit for educational and stream clean-up supplies.

At some of the stations students will need to find items to add, so the activity can incorporate math and science. For example, students playing the stepping stone tic-tac-toe will need six matching items, and the memory game will require two of each item to play. “They get to create the game as well as play it,” Konkel said.

An American Heritage girl will create the water flow and music walls for the playground, she said.

“I’m gearing up to do this with several schools in different ways,” Konkel said of the efforts to improve outdoor learning areas, with plans for campuses across the county for kindergarten through high school.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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