Student Summer Research Spotlight: Soils!

Student Summer Research Spotlight: Soils!

 This week focuses on four students’ research about the levels of metals in soil located around a steel mill in southwest Illinois. The students were interested in understanding if the soils in local parks are polluted and if the distance from the mill correlated with the different metals found in the soil. To answer this question, the students traveled to several parks located at various distances from the steel mill. Their research question was: how polluted are local parks and what can be done about it?

The students read various articles from sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to understand the potential health risks that soil pollution could pose to the environment and to those who live in the surrounding area.

Materials and Methods

The students collected soil samples from parks based on their proximity to the steel mill, their ability to publicly access the park, and permission for drone flights.

Data Collection

The students:

  • Used a Bruker X-ray Fluorescence gun;
  • Placed the XRF gun onto the top soil within baseball diamonds and soil at the base of trees within the park, documenting reading at 30 second intervals;
  • Recorded GPS location for each site;
  • Took pictures with the drone; and
  • Documented important information in their field notebooks;

The students, with help from scientists, plotted the sites on google earth and made a map to measure the distance from the steel mill.


Table 1. Table of Sample Locations and Percentage of Metals Found 


Figure 1. Distance from Steel Mill And Percent Zinc Found


Figure 2. Distance from Steel Mill And Percent Copper Found


Figure 3. Distance from Steel Mill And Percent Lead Found


Although the students did not find a direct correlation between the distance from the steel mill and the levels of metal pollutants within the soil, the students did realize that the metals found pose very significant health risks to people. The students concluded their research by thinking of possible solutions to minimize the presence of these metals. Here are some of the solutions they thought of:

  1. Bioremediation breaks down pollutants by using microorganisms
  2. Thermal desorption vaporizes contaminants from soil in a heated vacuum chamber (EP online, 2021).
  3. Soil washing, which combines water and chemical additives to scrub the soils in a mechanical process


Blog post written by STEM Center graduate student, Dwayne Ferguson.