Grant Uses Missouri River to Teach Earth Science and Sustainability at USD

To help University of South Dakota students gain a better understanding of how earth science and sustainability issues impacts their daily lives, faculty across the Vermillion campus will incorporate science and social issues related to the Missouri River into their classes next year.

Supporting the effort is a one-year $43,620 grant, “Sustainable Rivers: Integrating Earth Science & Sustainability Across the Curriculum,” from the InTeGrate project, a National Science Foundation program that aims to educate the public on geoscience and its relation to societal issues. The Missouri River will serve as the focus of the material taught at USD, said Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Mark Sweeney, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator of the grant with Meghann Jarchow, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and coordinator of USD’s Sustainability Program.

“The Missouri River is the spine of South Dakota and most of the students at USD are native South Dakotans,” Sweeney said. “They probably have some connection to the river, be it recreation, or fishing, or living next to the river and using the river’s resources.”

With the river as a common theme, faculty in the natural sciences, the humanities and social sciences will use educational modules developed through the InTeGrate project to incorporate into their classes such information as the hydrologic cycle, flood hazards and risks, surface and groundwater contamination and environmental justice. A solid grounding in these issues can help students make informed decisions about the river, Sweeney said.

Focusing on the Missouri River takes advantage of the students’ physical connection to the topic -- a concept known as “place-based learning.”

“When you are trying effect change and make the world a better place, it’s important to ground sustainability issues for students in a place where they live, in a place that they know,” Jarchow said.

Academic departments and programs taking part in the project are anthropology, biology, communication studies, earth sciences, economics, English, native studies, history and sustainability in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Division of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education. USD’s Missouri River Institute, a consortium of faculty who conduct research on issues related to the river, will provide resources to support the initiative. Faculty participants met this spring at a workshop to review materials provided by the InTeGrate program and to plan their courses, which will take place over the next academic year.