New course at The U offers unique education of Missouri River

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Thanks to a new course at The University of South Dakota, students have an opportunity to focus on studying the issues of the Missouri River.

A new interdisciplinary course, "Introduction to River Studies," has introduced a variety of important topics related to large river systems. Although other large rivers are covered in the class, emphasis is on the Missouri River during this semester-long course at The U.

"This is a unique opportunity for us to teach about a significant river in terms of our local culture," explained Tim Cowman, director of the Missouri River Institute at USD, "and to expose students to the Missouri River and all of the issues that engulf it."

Missouri River topics covered in the course include geology, biology, ecology and culture. Even water law and policy are discussed during the course, which meets every Thursday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Five instructors, including Cowman, Mark Dixon, assistant professor of biology; Dan Soluk, associate professor of biology; Robert Schneiders, assistant professor in the department of history; and Elizabeth Burleson, professor of law; are responsible for providing instruction on river geomorphology, river ecology, river history and water law policies.

"We have a diverse group of instructors because of the wide range of topics we're covering in the class," Cowman noted.

The fascination with the Missouri River begins with its history, most notably its role in paving the way to exploration of the western United States, but as the river once changed the history and culture of the Midwest, so too did the growth of the Midwest change the river.

"Over time, the ecology and the environment of the river have changed and, of course, there's the significant cultural history of the river," described Cowman. "Many of these changes were influenced by policy, both political and personal. The course is an overall education about the Missouri River."

Although the topics seem aimed at students majoring in sciences, the class is generic enough that students of the University from any discipline can participate. However, in addition to the weekly course lectures, students are also required to attend several field trips to observe the Missouri River and its tributaries.

"During the first field trip we spent several hours in boats on the river learning about the geology, ecology and cultural resources," Cowman said. "It exposes students to what the river is really like."

It helps that Vermillion is located along a 59-mile segment of the river – from Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park – that’s considered "free-flowing," a natural section of the river which also serves as a "hands-on" laboratory for the 22 students as well as faculty instructors for the Introduction to River Studies course.

"Rather than just talking about it, we're able to show them (the students)," explained Soluk, who noted the river’s impact on local habitats whether it's birds or aquatic life. "Students are beginning to realize that there’s an enormous cost of maintaining the whole system"

The whole system of the Missouri River is generally comprised of three segments: the system of dams and reservoirs on the upper river, free-flowing segments in the middle river and part of Montana, and the channelized segment from Ponca, Neb., to the mouth.

"Culturally, the river was in it’s heyday in the 19th century," Cowman pointed out, noting that Yankton was once a port on the Missouri during the steamboat era in the mid to late 1800s. "As the railroad industry moved west, it pretty much shut down the steamboat industry."

In the 20th century, as areas along the Missouri River became populated with people and agriculture, six mainstem dams were built. One of the purposes of the dams is to curb downstream flooding. Prior to that, Cowman described an unpredictable river that left locals puzzled.

"It used to meander all over the place," he added. "The river rose and fell in a matter of days."

While that aspect of the river is no longer what it used to be, the history of the river hasn't been forgotten and the future of the river seems just as meandering as its past – reasons that the new course is a popular addition to the curriculum at USD.

"We initially limited the course to an enrollment of 15 students," Cowman said, "but there was a really high demand for the class so we opened it up to everyone. There have been courses (on the Missouri River) before dealing with biological research and geology, but as far as interdisciplinary courses this is the first of its kind attempting to bring together all of the disciplines."

It’s also not the only campus-wide initiative to bring about awareness of the Missouri River. The University of South Dakota established the Missouri River Institute (MRI) to develop and promote research, education and public awareness related to the natural and cultural resources of the Missouri River Basin. Each year, the MRI hosts the Missouri River Institute Research Symposium at USD and the MRI maintains an office and classroom at the Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center at Ponca State Park. More information about the Missouri River Institute at USD can be found at this Web site: www.usd.edu/mri/.