Stream table helps geology labs rock

Alexa Grechishkin, Campus Life Reporter

Whitman’s Geology Department celebrated a major victory last year after learning that their $97,000 grant request had been accepted, allowing them to purchase tools for use in the lab and the field. The majority of the grant money went towards a new stream table manufactured by Emriver, but the fund also covered equipment that helps measure soil strength and stream flow rates and a desktop flume for in-class demonstrations. 

Prior to receiving the grant, the Geology Department was known for engaging labs that involved hands-on projects, giving students the opportunity to interact with every tool at the school’s disposal. These tools ranged from rock tumblers to drones for aerial surveys. However, the installation of the stream table in early February was a special cause for celebration on campus. The stream table is a large sloped table used to demonstrate geographic processes, allowing students to understand how river flows interact with and shape the surrounding environment. 

Geology Technician Lillian Kurzhal described how the stream table helps students to get a concrete visual of concepts that professors describe in class, even when some of the processes take over a thousand years to occur in real life. 

“The stream table helps students visualize river/ocean interaction, visualize stream formation [and] erosion and deposition in a fluvial system,” Kurzhal said. 

Junior geology major Coden Stark explained that the new features of the recently installed stream table help to make labs more engaging for students. 

“With the current table, we are able to control the slope, water level, flow rate and wave activity, all things that the last table wasn’t able to do. I think one of the big things is that it’s definitely a tool that feels more like a toy,” Stark said.

Professor of Geology Pat Spencer predicts that over 100 students annually, across introductory and advanced courses, will get the opportunity to interact with the table. Spencer observed that access to unique tools like the stream table is critical to building engagement with the department. 

“The reaction of students has been uniformly positive and enthusiastic. This includes majors and non-majors, and in some cases, students who happened to be walking by and wondered what we were doing,” Spencer said. 

The stream table has even helped expand the influence of the Geology Department to local public schools. Kurzhal described the Great Explorations event that brought fifth through seventh graders to Whitman campus for facilitated STEM activities.

“The students love coming to campus and doing hands-on learning in a new environment for a couple hours … [The students] had a really good time setting up mini experiments and running them through the stream table,” Kurzhal said. 

Stark agreed with Kurzhal’s sentiment, stating that the stream table was also a valuable resource to get students involved with a side of geology that doesn’t often get much public attention. 

“Our department right now places a lot of attention on the field component of geology (something that is often inaccessible), so I hope that the stream table and other new tools will draw people in and let them see the other sides of geology,” Stark said. 

The dedication of professors and students to cultivate the growth of the department signals a focus on facilitating student engagement through captivating lab activities.