PROVO -- Students in the geology department at Brigham Young University spend hours reading textbooks and looking at photos in hopes of understanding the complexities of river systems, but now a new tool is giving students a hands-on learning experience.
The stream table is designed to speed up the processes that would normally be found in nature. Erosion, the creation of deltas and the directions rivers flow can take hundreds of years to develop in nature, but the stream table can speed up that process, providing valuable insight to students and professors.
"We can start from scratch with a clean palate and watch how the system evolves over time," said Jani Radebaugh, professor of geological sciences. "Rivers are the No. 1 land form on Earth's surface and our understanding of streams and rivers can affect quality of life and hazard management."
The 13-by-5-foot table is made of Plexiglas and sits on an aluminum frame that can be tilted in any direction to simulate hills. The table contains four sizes of sand, distinguishable by different colors so students can see how the sand reacts to different conditions.
While the table simulates real-life conditions, it does have limitations.
"There is no bedrock and there is not actual rocks to cause the river to change," said Steven Herbst, student manager of the table. "The type of plastic sand that is used makes things happen so much faster than in real life. Many times the stream will want to go off the side of the table but it is stopped and so that changes the flow of the system."
He says while the table isn't perfect, it does provide a better understanding of small-scale processes than any book or photo ever could.
"Instead of reading a book, I can go in and run an experiment and see what happens," Herbst said. "In the past, the way these things have been taught (is) you read about it and have diagrams and the professors do a good job of telling you what happens under particular conditions. This way we can actually watch those things happen."
Radebaugh says the table isn't only a good teaching tool for professors but also a good tool for both students and professors to do research with. She also says that using the table can be a relaxing experience.
"It is soothing. You have the running water and your hands in the sand moving things around. It is very relaxing and therapeutic," Radebaugh said. "It is also a really creative experience. I think many of the students have really grabbed onto the table and it has headed their education in a direction that will lead them to river research."
BYU had a homemade stream table in the past but wasn't able to move it when its old home was being torn down. Radebaugh says it was then that the university agreed to help fund a new table. Radebaugh and several others traveled to Minnesota to get a preview of the stream table before bringing it to BYU.
"When I saw it being run at the national meeting in Minnesota it was very, very interesting to watch," Herbst said. "When they brought it in, I chose to help with the set up because I wanted to know everything you can do with the table."
As student manager of the table, Herbst is now working on helping professors design different experiments for students to do as homework assignments.
"It is a great wave of the future, in terms of having models to help educate students and to do research," Radebaugh said.