CARBONDALE — In sickness and in health, Southern Illinois University’s Campus Lake brings people together.

When repeated algal blooms turned it into a stinky eyesore considered too toxic for human use, the university spent some $450,000 to partially drain the lake, and community volunteers turned out en masse to help clean the shorelines, where an excess of organic waste was feeding the algae.

Now that the lake is back to its former beauty, a coalition has formed to ensure it remains healthy for years to come.

It includes engineers, biologists, computer programmers, a chemist, an entrepreneurship expert and a campus recreation coordinator. At the center of it all is Marj Brooks, a freshwater ecologist who has monitored campus lake for about a decade.

This year, Brooks brought three groups of SIUC engineering students into the picture. To graduate, all engineering seniors must complete a capstone design project. And 16 of those students are working for Brooks.

Marj Brooks, campus lake

Marjorie L. Brooks, Ph.D. in Biogeochemistry and Aquatic Ecology, is shown in the Zoology Laboratory in the Life Science II Building at SIU.

She is their “client,” and they are building new tools and technologies for the lake according to her specifications and her budget.

It’s a hands-on exercise in innovation, experimentation and professionalism: giving presentations, meeting deadlines and delivering a functioning product.

“It’s stressful because it’s hard to create something that you don’t fully understand at first, but it gives you that push to step outside of your comfort zone,” said Carlos Teran, one of the students. “Solve your problems, you’re an engineer, that’s what we do.”

The project, Brooks says, is unique in higher education. It’s collaborative, it builds professional skills, it puts students in the lead, and it gets the community involved, too.

As students refine their designs, Brooks is planning experiments to test their viability.

Her preliminary data has already shown solar-powered fountains can significantly reduce cyanobacteria, the scientific term for toxic blue-green algae.

That suggests students’ solutions could be used on other bodies of water that struggle with algae problems, Brooks said, like Carbondale’s Evergreen Reservoir.

Together with professor Scott Hamilton-Brehm, Brooks is also taking a closer look at the genetics and behavior of cyanobacteria, to better understand the global epidemic of harmful algal blooms, from local lakes to large stretches of ocean water.

“We’re exposing them to different levels of nutrients, aeration and temperature,” Brooks said, and “examining closely the mechanisms by which cyanobacteria produce toxins.”

She’s also leading a team of zoology students in planting a shoreline wetland on the south side of Campus Lake, providing a biodiverse and beautiful shield that will stop excess nutrients from flowing into the lake during rainstorms and nourishing cyanobacteria.

All that hard work has led to positive signs of a healthy lake.

For several years, Ami Ruffing, who oversees chemical safety on campus, has been testing the lake’s levels of microcystins, the toxic substances produced during algal blooms.

“This last year we had wonderful results,” Ruffing said. The World Health Organization’s recommendation for safe microcystin levels in recreational waters is anywhere under 10 parts per billion, Ruffing said. Before the clean-up, campus lake often exceeded that limit. But this year, the highest reading Ruffing got was well within the WHO guidelines.

The fish population is also thriving, testing shows.

Each fall, Greg Whitledge’s fish management class conducts a fish population density survey on the lake, using electrofishing — stunning fish in certain areas of the lake with minor electric shocks, in order to collect and count them.

Based on their findings, fish populations have “recovered on their own” since the drainage and cleanup, Whitledge said, as his students saw the same abundance of largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and crappie that existed prior to the lake cleanup.

And people are returning to the lake, too.

“We’re very excited that the lake is looking a lot better, smelling a lot better, and is chemically much happier,” said Jeff Goelz, assistant director of sports and recreational services at SIUC.

Back are the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta, the Polar Plunge, and the beloved moonlight canoe rides. Boat rental will be available all summer, and Goelz expects to see students, staff and Southern Illinois residents out enjoying the walking and jogging trails.

“We’ve all teamed up to make the lake a priority,” Goelz said. “I encourage community and students to use it and enjoy it.”

With about $30,000 still available from the $60,165 that Brooks secured from the SIUC Green Fund, the next phase will be implementation, she said.

“We need arrays of these things,” Brooks said. Imagine a lakeside spin class, with every bike powering a pump. Or a canoe race, with families splashing through solar-powered fountains. Getting people out to play, Brooks said, will only multiply the effects of the project.

“People think of ourselves as being separate from the environment but we’re part of it,” Brooks said. “What’s good for the environment is good for us. When ecosystems thrive people thrive.”

Here's a look at the students' projects

The solar-powered fountain

Solar fountain prototype SIUC campus lake

Mychal Gibbens, a senior engineering student at SIU Carbondale, describes his group's solar-powered fountain design during a public presentation on Thursday at Morris Library.

Team: Ethan Harris, Joshua Sykes, Kurt Borgsmiller, Mohammad Irsheid, Mychal Gibbens, Nicholas Duitsman, Michael Cubley (advisor)

Harmful algal blooms hate aeration, and they hate cool water, Brooks explained. That’s the principle behind the student-led fountain projects.

Harris, Sykes, Borgsmiller, Irsheid, Gibbens and Duitsman have created a floating, solar-powered fountain that will aerate the lake while creating fun, splashy obstacles for boaters.

It’s an improvement on a solar fountain design created last year: lighter in weight, easier to put together, take apart and repair, and almost five times as powerful. Under strong sunlight, their fountain should circulate about 3,700 gallons of water per hour, Duitsman said.

By semester’s end, the group plans to complete four floating fountains. Ultimately, Brooks said, the fountains will serve as the starting and finish lines for a solar fountain obstacle course, with other, smaller fountains providing the obstacles in between.

“The obstacle course is a slam dunk,” Brooks said. “It will aerate and cool the lake, and provide a fun incentive for people to get out and enjoy the water, in boats and kayaks.”

The pedal-powered fountain

Pedal-powered fountain prototype SIUC

Jared Sims works on a pedal-powered fountain prototype for SIUC's Campus Lake with classmate Matt Lunde on Jan. 29, 2019.

Team: Dalton Cobb, Joseph Muschler, Matt Lunde, Jared Sims, Trey Hentis, James A. Mathias (advisor)

Cobb, Muschler, Lunde, Sims and Hentis are tasked with realizing the vision of SIUC Recreation Assistant Director Jeff Goelz: a stationary bike that powers a pump, providing a workout while also circulating and aerating the lakewater.

Last year, a group of industrial design students built an impressive prototype, Brooks said, but it had one big problem: It was “the ultimate thigh master workout,” far too difficult to pedal.

This time around, students carefully studied and tested gear ratios, pump types and frame designs, to create a model that’s sturdier, more portable and easier to use.

In warmer weather, the group will refine their prototype, making sure it pulls enough water from the depths of the lake to meet Brooks’ standards for water aeration and cooling.

Then, they’ll measure every component and create a precise 3D computer blueprint that will allow SIUC or any other builder to replicate the bike.

The plan is to build several, Brooks said, and place them strategically in the lake’s coves and inlets, where water often sits stagnant, with little circulation. Those areas, historically, have been hotbeds for toxic algae.

The lake health probe network


Kang Chen (left), professor of electrical and computer engineering, and senior Carlos Teran review the presentation for the project to monitor temperatures in Campus Lake.

Team: Abdullah Abdulrahman, Alwalid Aljasham, Majid Aldhafeeri, Carlos Teran Rivero, Ryan Burns, Kang Chen (advisor)

Abdulrahman, Aljasham, Aldhafeeri, Teran and Burns are creating a network of pocket-sized computers that can track changes in the lake, like temperature, dissolved oxygen level or pH, and transmit that information back to SIUC, in real time.

The devices will float on buoys, protected from the elements by plastic cases, and they’ll be powered by solar panels.

They’ll allow Brooks to keep a constant eye on the lake’s health and the potential for harmful algae to reappear.

The project has been a boot camp in coding, the students said. With no wifi on the lake, the group must write code to teach the devices to communicate with each other.

Once the students build an effective network, SIUC will be able to add more sensors, to get a more complete picture of the lake’s condition. In the coming months, they’ll focus on teaching the devices to communicate better, and creating a computer program to visualize the data.

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.


Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

Load comments