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The mercury in the thermometer barely crept past the freezing mark during an early January day, yet Randall Hayes found himself standing in the middle of a blighted creek in Schuylkill County. A pair of waders served as his only real protection from the chilly water.

Hayes, a junior studying biotechnology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, sloshed around, collecting water samples from five different sites. It looked clear, but the unmistakable signs of acid mine drainage surrounded him.

“Every time you took a sample, you would upset this grimy, slimy layer of orange precipitate – settled-out iron mixed with leaves and dirt,” Hayes said. “Every time you would take a step, it would disturb it. It would flow up from the base and make the water murky and cloudy. You’d take another step – same effect.”

Hayes took the freezing foray into the water as part of a collaborative effort among the university, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Schuylkill Conservation District. He’s studying the health of the Upper Swatara Creek watershed, work that will satisfy a research project requirement for HU’s Experiential Learning program.

Paired with a mandatory internship, the research project is designed to ensure students leave the university with the hands-on experience needed to join the workforce or a demanding graduate program. Employers are looking for proof students can handle the rigors of the professional world post-graduation, and experiential learning is a good start.

The research project experience can pay off when employers are ready to hire, said Kim Sprought, associate director of Experiential Programs and Professional Development at Harrisburg University.

“On the research side, in addition to enhancing their skills, students learn how to manage projects,” she said. “They’re working independently on these projects, coming up with time and task lines and in some cases learning how to work in team settings for group projects.”

Building a resume – and versatility

Like Hayes, HU senior KaRon Scott is also working on a research project. His work focuses on electric vehicle mobility – mainly bicycles.

A research team already built a mini charging station for electric bikes last year. Scott’s mission is to improve upon that work.

He already sees areas of opportunity. Solar panels can be enhanced. The setup needs an alternative energy source that can burn electricity when batteries are fully charged. And, to be outside, it needs another fuse box in case of a lightning strike.

But the biggest goal for his research project may be getting the charging station out from its prototype setting in the lab and into another location – maybe a local bike shop with an existing bike-share program.

“The structure is pretty good,” Scott said. “I think, right now, we need to focus on a better location and put it into production.”

Scott is studying software engineering. And while coding is certainly part of his project, what he’s learning about renewable energy has given him valuable versatility.

“I’m able to understand the background research of renewable energy and the coding knowledge. I can put two pieces together,” he said.

Creating a pipeline

That’s the type of experience that can give students a leg up when it comes time to find a job. That’s also always been part of HU’s mission.

“The idea for this university came from some major employers in the area who were having a hard time finding talented college graduates with the hands-on skills needed to actually enter the workforce upon graduation,” Sprought said. “We had a lot of talent here in the area, but those students were leaving to go to other higher-education institutions, and employers were missing out on a pipeline of talented students.”

Now, students take advantage of their experiential learning work to land jobs after school.

At the moment, Scott is focused on the charging station and related research. And Hayes will have to explore whether years of remediation work has actually made a difference for the polluted stream he’s studying.

While it’s important for their careers, the work is also rewarding.

“It has been life-changing, and I don’t say that lightly,” Hayes said. “It’s allowed me to really feel like I’m contributing and helping out the places I’ve called home during my life.”

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