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RIVER LIFE

Multiple Ways of Looking at a River

January 16, 2013Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured Posts, River MeaningComments Off on Multiple Ways of Looking at a River

Wallace Stevens’s modernist classic “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” expressed in poetic form the concept that “reality” can be perceived from multiple perspectives, each of which sheds distinct insight on the thing being examined.

Self-evident to us in the 21st century? Perhaps.  But if you read the literature on rivers, you see a lot of one-dimensional views.  The Mississippi river’s hydrology is examined, or the aquatic ecology to be affected by invasive fish species.  Lately there’s been a lot of concern about the engineering of the river: can it carry the barge traffic that we need for it to?

We know a lot about the Mississippi through the perspectives commonly understood by the acronym STEM:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  I would argue that these disciplines are necessary for developing a real familiarity with the river as a physical phenomenon.

Necessary, but not sufficient.  The dimensions of meaning, of significance, of what a river like the Mississippi means and why we should care, is very often lost in a reductive STEM environment.  Fortunately, as this article shows, there are efforts all over the place to broaden the narrow STEM perspective, to add Art to turn STEM into STEAM.

The article linked above describes work at an elementary school in Oregon, but the concept has gained currency very broadly.  Here at the University of Minnesota, our River Life program collaborates with people on both sides of the STEAM   The STEM Education Center conducts research in a number of particular areas and levels of learning.  It has a grant to engage with people in the Minnesota River valley that we are particularly interested in.

In the Department of Art, Christine Baeumler has long been a leading practitioner of ecologically-connected artistic practice.  From her departmental page linked above, follow the links to special projects she has been involved with; you will be amazed and energized.

And after all, isn’t that part of what we at universities are supposed to do? Connect people across disparate knowledge areas and professional practices to develop work that is bigger than we would achieve on our own? To amaze and energize both our students and the public?

Sounds like a good goal to me!

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