Working in a laboratory provides scientists with a predictable and controlled setting for conducting experiments. But in the environmental sciences eventually many of those experiments need to graduate to the uncontrolled and unpredictable environment of the field—a transition that can be challenging for both the scientist and the science.

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To help bridge this gap between the lab and the field, the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative is constructing a globally unique $1 million research facility that will be home to two constructed experimental watersheds, each consisting of an interconnected pond, stream and wetland. Both of these experimental watersheds are roughly the length and width of a football field and they will be located five miles north of campus on six acres of land within St. Patrick’s County Park.

These artificial watersheds will allow scientists to conduct “field experiments” in a more controlled environmental setting than nature itself can provide, thereby helping to bridge the gap that has traditionally existed between the lab and the field. This new research site is known as the Notre Dame Linked Experimental Ecosystem Facility at St. Patrick’s County Park, or ND-LEEF for short.

ND-LEEF is born out of a close partnership with the Park that will provide an unrivaled opportunity for scientific and environmental outreach to regional school groups and other park visitors from South Bend, St. Joseph County, and surrounding communities. What’s more, because the entire site will be wired with an extensive embedded sensor network, school groups, the general public, and collaborating scientists will be able to follow the research in real time via the Internet from anywhere in the world.

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In addition, these real-time data will allow educators at all levels to provide follow-up on ecological classroom exercises for weeks or even months after a field trip to ND-LEEF is complete. While other universities and government agencies have experimental research facilities containing multiple small ponds or artificial streams, we believe ND-LEEF is globally unique because the pond, stream and wetland in each watershed are connected—an experimental research design that is intended to mimic nature. The connected configuration of these watersheds is especially important when investigating issues related to environmental change, which often cascade through several ecosystem types. What’s more, the streams, ponds and wetlands at ND-LEEF can also be disconnected from one another for a given experiment, providing scientists with maximum flexibility in designing research projects. In addition to the linked watershed units, ND-LEEF will also include a large area dedicated to terrestrial ecological research as well as space for smaller scale mesocosm experiments.

In addition to the close partnership with the Park, ND-LEEF represents a multidisciplinary collaboration between the Notre Dame College of Science, the College of Engineering and the School of Architecture. Groundbreaking for the facility occurred on June 15, 2012, and construction was completed in Fall 2012. The first research experiments at ND-LEEF should begin during Spring 2013.

Originally published on the ND-LEEF website.