University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

River Life Takes a Sip of Science

November 14, 2011Patrick NunnallyEventsComments Off on River Life Takes a Sip of Science

Last Wednesday, I was the featured speaker at the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamic‘s “Sip of Science” program, held at the Aster Cafe in Minneapolis.  Sip of Science brings scientific insights and understandings out of the laboratory and the field test plot, into more engaging places where discussions with nonscientists can be enhanced.

Well, as a nonscientist myself, I told the crowd (about 40 people) that if they were going to get science from me, it would be mighty small sips!

So what did I talk about?  After watching a musical slide tour up the Mississippi from the Gulf to the Headwaters, I noted that there didn’t seem to be much science in that show.  So I asked the audience for scientific facts.  Here’s what they gave me:

  • the Mississippi has the largest drainage basin in the US
  • The Mississippi is a major migratory bird flyway
  • the Mississippi is the longest river in the United States
  • we drink the Mississippi (in Minneapolis, at least)
  • we dredge the Mississippi
  • the Mississippi is a major recreational feature of the region

This is all well and good, but I was still looking for more.  So I asked the group questions like

  • How would you explain the fact that the Mississippi is dredged to a 5 year old child?  (The great answer involved Tonka trucks, a sandbox, and, eventually, a pretty dirty 5 year old!)
  • How would you devise a policy about the Mississippi as a recreational feature?
  • How would you tell a story about the size of the drainage basin?
You get the idea.
Our point:  facts don’t speak for themselves.  When fact is embedded in story, or policy–in context, if you will, then the facts become powerful and active.  Until then, they are just “fun facts to know and tell.”
One of the audience members, during a more open form q/a period, asked me what River Life does that is distinctive and why we should continue to get funding among the literally hundreds of other river organizations in existence.
I think the answer was demonstrated during the program:  we provide story and policy contexts for sound facts about the Mississippi, placing the river and the issues that face it in the important discussions of the river’s future, as well as the futures of the communities that depend on the river.  To do this, we work with scientists, planners, and diverse communities; we create learning environments for students and for the public; and we illuminate relationships between things that had not before been evident.
After all, why shouldn’t the University of Minnesota be a “go to” place to learn about the sustainable future of the Mississippi and the inclusive planning that will create that future?

Tagged , ,

Related Posts

Comments are closed.

Contact Us!
Send us a note at to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.