River Futures: The Program that Perpetuates Itself
It’s a truism that our future is bound up in children, in young people, or, at a University, in our students. Lots and lots of river folks, of course, engage young people, as our post of last week on the Story Boat project demonstrated.
But what if we could really get the “student power” of the University of Minnesota oriented toward the Mississippi River? As the only comprehensive university located largely within the boundaries of a National Park Service unit, it would seem to be our mission to find out.
“River Futures” is the name we have given to our efforts to get the university in the DNA of the river and park and to get the river/park in the DNA of the university. River Futures has two components: Gopher Rangers, which is a way to improve access for students into the work of the Park Service at their Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) unit, and River Studies, which is an effort to systematically connect teaching, co-curricular research opportunities, and other programs to the park’s work. Let’s look at these quickly.
Most of our students don’t know that they go to school in a National Park. Yet for many of them, the opportunity to engage in habitat restoration, a canoeing program for school children, or to lead an interpretive program would be a tremendously valuable adjunct to their major fields of study. Student lives are busy, though, and they don’t know how to get started, to connect up with the park, or what to do. The Gopher Ranger program provides information and announces upcoming programs to interested students so they can have access to opportunities to extend their learning and contribute to the Park’s work.
River Studies gets at the same goals but in a slightly different manner. So far, we’re working on a pilot basis with faculty in the College of Design and the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences to collect information on courses and student project opportunities that might mutually benefit the park and the students in the course. Suppose that an urban design course has a service learning component requiring a community partner and is focused on urban natural systems. If the faculty member gets in touch with park staff, there may be a potential collaboration that serves a park need as well as fulfilling the course goals. The same could happen with a course on urban forestry, on tourism behavior, or literally dozens of other ideas.
The University of Minnesota is by no means the only college or university on the Mississippi. We know, and work with, people at Augustana College in Rock Island, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Tulane University in New Orleans. As the River Futures program and comparable efforts along the river mature, a cadre of educated, bright, and idealistic young people should be organized for future Mississippi River sustainability efforts! Some of them will work at colleges and universities, and so the cycle of benefits continues.