Channeling STEM Education

Dr. Kevin Finson, far right, and Dr. Sherri Morris, far left, volunteer at the river lab in Peoria's Riverfront Museum.

By Frank Radosevich II
November 16, 2012

Bradley students and professors are bringing the banks of the Illinois River inside, only on a much smaller scale, to visitors at the newly opened Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Volunteers from the University are periodically manning a river laboratory in the museum to educate the public on the waterway’s mechanics, health and importance to the region. The lab is part of the Illinois River Encounter exhibit, where visitors can learn about everything from the river’s origin to its current ecosystem.

“There is a lot of learning we can do about the behavior of the river,” said Dr. Kevin Finson, a professor in teacher education and one of the volunteers. “It is a major component of our geographic area.”

The river lab also plays a key part in Bradley’s commitment to STEM education, by providing hands-on science education to the community. Dr. Finson, a co-director for Bradley’s Center for STEM Education, said the lab makes learning more accessible and fun than what might be possible in a traditional classroom. He said Bradley wants to add more activities to the river lab and find more staff to run the exhibit more often.

The exhibit also offers Bradley students the chance to work with younger visitors as they explore the lab and learn the science behind rivers.

“The students engaged well with the young visitors,” said Dr. Sherri Morris, a biology professor who volunteers at the lab. “We have some biology and secondary education majors who could really learn a lot from those kinds of activities.”

Using a stream table, a 16-foot trough that simulates the river’s flow and movement of sediment, visitors can shape their own waterway and demonstrate problems like erosion and silting in channels.

A pump on the stream table sends down water at different speeds and points where it is collected and piped back up to the top. Participants can shape the table’s sand — actually ground-up, recycled plastic jugs to avoid bacterial growth — using hand shovels and boards to build islands, bends or dams.

“The idea is that you can demonstrate different principles to the public,” said Dr. Morris, who also serves as co-director of the STEM center. “You can start out with a flat table and show how water will find a path to the bottom. Or you can create an island, like they are doing in the Illinois River, and show how this is going to change water movement.”

Bradley students also built four sediment tubes, plastic cylinders filled with water, sand and other sediments that represent the materials that erode into the Illinois River. Visitors can shake the tubes to learn about the river’s turbidity, the murkiness triggered by stirring up and suspending sediment in the water.

Quynh Nguyen, a junior studying biology and one of several student volunteers, said that although she plans on attending medical school, she appreciated having the exposure to and teaching others about the Illinois River.

“By helping out with the museum, I’m able to understand more about the Illinois River,” said Nguyen, who also works in Dr. Morris’ research lab on campus. “It’s smart to understand what’s happening in the environment rather than just focusing on one field of science.”