The Department Geology, Geography and Environment and the Ecosystem Preserve worked together to build a dune area on the Calvin University campus for FYRES labs and research projects in Fall 2020. In the summer of 2021, an additional pile of sand was added to the center of the dune area to simulate a blowout formation and make the dune increasingly similar to dunes found in natural environments.

Having on-campus access to a dune area gave us more certainty for providing hands-on field experiences in the COVID-19 context. Most of the classes and labs for GEO 181 First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) in September through early November took place on or near the dune. 

The dune has remained a valuable asset to the FYRES program since 2020, providing a practice environment on campus to learn research skills before travelling to the shores of Lake Michigan. In addition, the dune has been used in several two-week research projects to investigate the difference between an artificial dune and a naturally formed dune. 

The area is named Perseverance Dune, upon recommendation from FYRES Research Mentors from 2019 and 2020. “Perseverance” embodies the tenacity of the FYRES program, scientific exploration, and work by students and faculty in Fall 2020 despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. We are not alone in adopting the name Perseverance for a scientific enterprise this year; NASA launched the Perseverance Rover to Mars on 30 July 2020. Some funding for FYRES and Perseverance Dune comes from NASA through the Michigan Space Grant Consortium.

Most recent update of information on this page: 23 September 2022.

Prior to fall 2020, the First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) course introduced 197 first-semester students to hands-on learning at Lake Michigan dunes over the last nine years. In a typical semester, Professor van Dijk and the FYRES Research Mentors take 24 first-year students to the dunes on 7 different Thursday afternoons in September, October and early November. Sometimes we go to the same site in 3 12-passenger vans and sometimes we head out to different sites in 6 minivans. Common destinations include P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, North Beach Park and other Ottawa County Parks dunes.

Adapting multiple field trips in vans and minivans to minimize COVID risks is possible but challenging. At a minimum, we would need to have fewer people in more large vehicles. Other factors complicate field trip planning, such as an increased number of absences if people are temporarily quarantining while waiting for test results because of contact with someone who gets COVID.

To keep (and even increase) the amount of hands-on field experiences in the course for Fall 2020, the on-campus dune solved the transportation challenges and provided for more flexibility for the timing of field experiences. Students, mentors and professor were able to walk to the field site for lab activities and research measurements. When there were absences from quarantining, students were able to make up the work or do comparable activities at the field site at a later time. The convenient access increased the amount of dune time compared to previous semesters because additional teaching and research measurements could be done on-site instead of on a computer or in a typical classroom.

We purchased 450 cubic yards of sand. Each cubic yard weighs roughly 2800 lbs or 1.4 tons. Therefore, the estimated weight of the sand is 630 tons. The sand was delivered by trucks with two trailers each. It took 10 of these deliveries to get all of the sand to campus.

On 6 August 2020 we used GPS to measure the sand area at 8975 square feet (833.8 square meters. The edges of the sand will adjust a little over the next several weeks as the sand settles into place. We will measure again during the fall semester.

The average depth of the sand should be about 18 inches.

Roughly 7500 square feet was designated as the research area and restricted to FYRES students and faculty. A sandy area outside of the research area was available for public enjoyment.

In late August 2020, more than 1000 dune plants were were planted by volunteers along the west, south and east margins of the dune. The plants were provided by Calvin biology professor Dave Warners and the Plaster Creek Stewards who made the dune species (grown in a greenhouse at Calvin University) available for planting.

Dr. van Dijk asked the FYRES Research Mentors from last year (2019-2020) and the current year (2020-2021) to suggest name ideas for the dune area. From the list of possible names that emerged, two popular suggestions emerged and mentors were asked to vote for their favorite. 

The name “Perseverance” embodies the tenacity of the FYRES program, a characteristic of scientific exploration, and a virtue that will be practiced by students and faculty in Fall 2020 given the COVID-19 challenges. We appreciate that NASA’s latest MARS rover, which was launched on 30 July, is named Perseverance.

FYRES has a deeper connection to NASA than sharing the name Perseverance. NASA has strategic interests in supporting science and engineering education, research and public outreach efforts. Some funding for FYRES and Perseverance Dune comes from NASA through a Michigan Space Grant Consortium Public Outreach Grant.

Perseverance Dune is located east of the Prince Conference Center on a slope that overlooks Prince Pond and some of the native gardens of the Calvin University Ecosystem Preserve. Visitors can see the dune area from the pathway by Prince Pond or the sidewalk by Parking Lot 16 (parking lot near Prince Conference Center).

The timeline below is in reverse chronological order so you can see the current status and/or most recent activity first.

3 December 2020. Join us for the (virtual) Dune Research Presentations to hear what the student research teams investigated and discovered about Perseverance Dune and Lake Michigan dunes.

Late November 2020. Class work moved indoors as the weather got cooler, and research activities focused on data analysis and communicating results. Most of our field data collection was completed by the end of Thursday, 12 November. On 18 November Calvin University (with other Michigan colleges and universities) switched to online learning by Michigan government order in response to rising COVID numbers in the state. Monitoring of some dune processes is continuing by Professor van Dijk and several of the FYRES Research Mentors.

September, October, and early November 2020.  Multiple class and lab periods saw students and professor teaching and learning near the dune or investigating and observing on the dune. In mid-October, student research projects included setting up an instrument tower to measure wind speeds and direction, along with erosion pins, sand traps, and experimental vegetation plots for team research projects.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020. Ecosystem Preserve Director J. Skillen and Calvin Facilities staff deliver some logs to the top of the Perseverance Dune slope. The logs are intended to trap moving sand before it leaves the dune and moves into the parking lot. Lake Michigan dunes have similar features near the tops of large blowouts where erosion undercuts trees that fall onto the dune slopes and act as natural sand traps. 

Thursday, 3 September 2020. GEO 181 FYRES met for the first lab period at Perseverance Dune, with the leadership of 5 FYRES Research Mentors and Professor D. van Dijk. Conditions were windy and sand could be seen moving across the dune surface.

Wednesday, 2 September 2020. The first classes met at Perseverance Dune for class. Not only did the 20 students in GEO 181 FYRES meet the dune for the first time in their 10:30am class period, but the GEO 252 Geomorphology class also met at the dune at 9am. Both courses are taught by Professor D. van Dijk.

Saturday, 29 August 2020. The first FYRES 2020 activity at the dune was an in-person training day for FYRES Research Mentors.

Wednesday, 26 August and Saturday, 29 August 2020. Volunteers under the direction of Rine Wakeman planted more than 1000 plants of 8 different dune species donated by the Plaster Creek Stewards and Dr. Dave Warners. Rine Wakeman and many of the planting volunteers were FYRES students from 2019.

Friday, 21 August 2020. A local company installed fence posts along the boundary for the research area. Several days later Ecosystem Preserve Director Jamie Skillen and Professor D. van Dijk added rope to complete the post-and-rope fence. 

Thursday, 6 August 2020: A small group of previous FYRES students, current FYRES Mentors, and Professor D. van Dijk began preparing the dune for research by designating research area boundaries and mapping the total sand area. We were joined by a WoodTV reporting crew. Their story was aired on the 11pm news and is available online.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020: Excavator and Calvin staff moved sand from piles in parking lot onto the slope to form the dune area.

  • Morning video showing the "before dune" site.
  • Morning video showing excavator starting to move sand onto the slope.
  • More morning video of excavator moving sand onto the slope.
  • Morning video (from bottom of slope) of dune-building activity.
  • Morning video showing dune building as sand is moved at bottom and top of slope.
  • Afternoon video showing excavator doing final pushing and smoothing of sand.
  • Afternoon video showing equipment sweeping sand from the parking lot.
  • Afternoon video showing equipment putting the last sand from parking lot into a pile to be moved to the dune.
  • Afternoon video showing the "after" view of the completed dune. Compare to the morning "before dune" video.
  • Time lapse video by FYRES Research Mentor Peter Duimstra shows the entire construction of the dune. (Video is compiled from photos taken at a rate of 4 per minute.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020: Sand was delivered to the roadway and parking lot at top of the slope. 

  • Video of the second half of the first load of sand being dumped on the road.
  • Video of afternoon delivery of sand to parking lot.
  • Video of second truck arriving with sand while first truck is still unloading sand.
  • Video of second truck unloading sand from back trailer while first truck prepares to unload sand from front trailer.

Monday, 3 August 2020: Grassed slope was prepared for sand arrival. 

Although this dune area is artificially created and does not have the Lake Michigan setting, FYRES students were able to do real research that contributes to Michigan dune management and scientific knowledge.

The dune area is an ideal setting for field experiments, where we can set up a controlled scenario to investigate how wind and sand movement interact with the scenario. Some examples of scenarios are installing a sand fence (a common dune management strategy), placing woody debris on the slope (a less common management strategy) or planting a specific type of dune vegetation (a management strategy or ecological restoration strategy). Convenient access for measurements also permits detailed studies of the dune slope's response to wind in a strong autumn storm or how surface conditions (moisture, temperature) change with location on the slope or timing after a storm.

As is typical for a FYRES semester, we announced the research project topics in early October when we constructed our research teams. Some of the research questions that we investigated this semester are:

  • How does Perseverance Dune compare with natural Lake Michigan dunes?
  • What are the patterns of erosion and deposition around a new planting of a specific type of dune vegetation (Calamovilfa longifolia)?
  • What are the patterns of surface changes taking place on Perseverance Dune?
  • How do the characteristics of autumn storms affect erosion and surface characteristics on Perseverance Dune?

We are grateful to the people and organizations that contributed to creating a dune at Calvin University!

Funding Sources

Funding for the project comes from:

  • This project was supported in part by funding provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), under award number NNX15AJ20H, Michigan Space Grant Consortium Public Outreach Grant to Deanna van Dijk.
  • Henk Aay GEO Learning Fund
  • Generous funding by gifts from GEO Department alumni, faculty, and friends
  • Calvin University Science Division

Funding is in hand for purchasing sand and its delivery, contracting for the equipment and operator to spread the sand on the slope, and installing a fence and signs to designate the research area. If you are interested in providing an online gift to for future projects like this, you can use this link and enter "sand dune project" in the designation field.

Other Contributions

Support in kind for the project has come from:

Local businesses where supplies or services were obtained:

  • Birch Tree Bark & Stone - sand and delivery
  • Hap Hoekwater & Sons Excavating, Inc - moving sand into dune area and shaping it