Geology department river trip with high school students

Posted on 05.17.2016


Each semester Prof. Michael Stewart runs a field trip for Earth Sciences classes from the local high-schools. With the help of graduate students and undergraduates in the Department of Geology and funding from Shell Oil Company, Prof. Stewart leads the classes on a canoeing excursion down a 6-mile stretch of the West Fork of the Vermillion River, Illinois’ first State Scenic River and a designated National Scenic River.

Along the river corridor, the students observe glacial till exposed in the bluffs towering 1s of meters over cut banks, and then walk on gravel bars composed of glacial boulders derived from these same bluffs. They hunt out a variety of glacially derived boulders leading to discussions weathering of the cut banks and the glacial history of central Illinois. As the trip continues downstream, the stream cuts deeper through the tills exposing portions of a Pennsylvanian cyclothem. Although no coal is exposed along this stretch of river, the students do have opportunity to hunt for fossils in the silty sandstones and mudstones of the Modesto Formation while learning about cyclothem deposition during cyclical sea level changes.

Geology is not the only topic of discussion during the trip. Ecology and Environmental Hazards are also major topics. Students commonly observe animals along the banks of the river including deer, heron and the occasional river otter. Each year the trip pass beneath an ancient sycamore leaning over the river with a massive bald eagle nest perched high in the tree. Often, the students get a glimpse of an eagle hatchling and adults soaring above.

This stretch of the Middle Fork also passes a decommissioned coal power plant, with coal ash impoundments looming over the banks of the river.  Students observe firsthand the potential hazard offered by these ponds – groundwater seepage along the banks has an observable sheen, and the deterioration of bank stabilization efforts where the ash impoundments sit close to the cut banks spark discussions of potential impacts to both the Vermillion Rivers system’s ecosystems and economic benefits to east central Illinois.

At the end of the trip, students and staff are often wet from the river and tired from the day’s paddling. But all come away with a greater appreciation for this very important stream, and geologic history it records here in East Central Illinois. Our graduate students also love taking the ‘day off’ to go teach on the river. 


Royal Dutch Shell subsidized the trips for the 2015-16 school year.

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Learning by the river