Solving the mystery of the murky creek

  • solving the mysteries of the creek

Two civil engineering students at Unitec are currently working with Auckland Council on a real-life project, researching the reasons a stream restoration project hasn’t resulted in the ecological improvements expected.

Lucas Creek in Albany is the site of a Council restoration programme done around five years ago, but it hasn’t resulted in the anticipated improvements in its ecology. Confounding matters, a nearby creek, Vaughn, which was subjected to little remediation, has a healthier than expected ecology. The Council wants to find out what’s going on, and approached Unitec to help find out.

Students Taotafa [Tafa] Matafeo and Hassan Albaghdadi, both in their final year of the Bachelor of Engineering Technology (Civil) are using the Stream Ecology Valuation (SEV), a methodology developed by Council. They’ll use this to compare and contrast the two streams, to identify problems and potential solutions.

What does civil engineering have to do with stream restoration — isn’t that the job of ecologists? Environmental engineering is a branch of engineering that is integral to providing solutions to much of modern life — how to manage clean water supplies, for instance, or land and air pollution.

As civil engineering lecturer Anastasis Niumata, who is overseeing the projects, explains: “So with the streams, ecologists might look at the invertebrate life in the stream and the quality of the water. Civil engineers will look at the type of soil in the stream, the contours of the landscape, how stable the soil is, how fast the water flows, the surrounding plants, trees, the canopy cover, any rainfall events and so on,” she says. 

Council is offering considerable support, providing equipment, training in SEV methodology, and sending out a Council ecologist to oversee initial data collection. The students were also invited to Council offices where environmental specialist, Kristi Holland, briefed them on the project. “So the students know it’s not just me telling them what to do, but we’re working with Council in a professional capacity,” says Anastasis. 

Hussan and Tafa jumped at the chance to get involved. “It’s a real life project, it’s working with Council, and it’s nice to look into something that nobody has looked into before,” says Hassan. “And hopefully we can find some solutions, for the restoration of these streams.”

It’s also giving them the chance to put theory into practice, get experience with the SEV methodology, data collection, and an understanding of the variables involved in data collection.  “You have to get your hands a bit dirty,” says Hassan.

Tafa agrees. “Learning how to use the SEV has been a real eye opener. There are a lot of different factors that can affect the ecology of a stream, so it’s been really awesome to take part in this. I don’t think a lot of people will be aware of just how many factors there are. I’m in my final year and there was a lot I didn’t know. 

“It’s developing my knowledge, and if I go back home, it’s something that I might be able to apply to projects in Samoa.” 

As Ana points out, Hassan and Taotafa will be able to put together a portfolio that details their work on a real-life project, one that will reap practical insights that Council can use. “Which will be a great way to showcase their employability, when they graduate.” 

High-school students from six West Auckland schools have also contributed to the project, collecting data for four of the ten sites of the two steams. 

Their involvement is through the EE2E (Engineering Education to Employment) programme. This is a Government initiative aimed at addressing the shortage of engineering skills in New Zealand, and which is promoting engineering as a vocational learning pathway by offering classes to Level 2 and 3 NCEA students.

Anastasis is teaching the EE2E course two days a week, along with EE2E programme leader, Ellimay Hendricks. Getting high-school students involved in the Council project has been a great way for them to get an insight into environmental engineering, says Anastasis. 

“So I talk to them about water, waste, and environment, and how it’s part of engineering. They’re quite surprised -- they thought engineering was building bridges and rockets. There’s so much more in the engineering space that isn’t really well known.”

It’s also an opportunity to remind students that women can do engineering. “The students are amazed that I’m an engineer and female, and the teachers are surprised, and say ‘oh, great to see a woman in this role’.”

It is also giving her a chance to promote engineering among Māori and Pacific. “I’m really passionate about that. And being Pacific resonates with them -- that you really can be Māori and Pacific and get a good education and have a career in engineering.”


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