Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center

Water testing and analysis of a New England pond


The puzzle we are hoping to explore involves discovering the source of nutrients that fed major algae and wolffia blooms that overwhelmed a pond in the town of Acton, MA last summer. These blooms had no precedent in this pond, and were serious enough to threaten its health and survival.

The pond under investigation is a six-acre kettle hole pond. There are four residences near the pond, a bog at one end, and the rest of its border is a thin screen of pine and oak woodland. Just beyond the woodland are residential areas and farmland. Town sewage has been installed recently on one shore of the pond with septic systems on the other side. As the pond has an outflow affecting more distant waterways, chemical treatments of this situation should be used with caution and only after a careful study of the cause of the problem.

The Challenge

In order to discover the source of the nutrients that fed this bloom there needs to be a careful mapping of the watershed and testing of the pond water’s chemistry over a period of several months. While this is just one pond in one New England community, algae and wolffia blooms are becoming a more common and serious problem in Acton.  The research on this pond could inform this town and neighboring towns eventually leading to the preservation of this natural resource and many others.

Qualifications and Assests

The students should have an interest in ecology, and an appreciation of the complexity of this small system within a suburban environment. Students should also be able to complete an investigation of the hydrology, water quality, and biology of the pond. Dr. Peter Shanahan, MIT researcher with interests in water quality management, has agreed to supervise the students in this project and can be contacted at

Time Constraints

The project could start with mapping and background research during the winter--particularly the month-long Independent Activities Period MIT holds every January.  It could then continue into the spring and perhaps the summer. A key parameter is the concentration of phosphorus in the water in the spring, and that information could be captured before the end of the school year.


MIT students interested in developing projects around these ideas should contact Tom Tidman, Director of Conservation Department,, 978-264-9361.

PKG Center Support

MIT students who develop projects around these ideas may apply for support from the Public Service Center’s Fellowships or Grants programs. Please check the program descriptions and deadlines and talk to program staff to determine which is most appropriate for your needs and project.

If you have funding from outside the PKG Center that enables you to work on this project, that’s great! However, please do let us know if you work on a project you saw advertised here, even if you don’t use our funds. And remember, the PKG Center staff are happy to advise on service projects even if we are not funding them ourselves.

Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Room W20-549, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
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