A woman standing on a dock talking to a group of people sitting in canoes on the river
Sarah Gordon teaches about microplastics in rivers to VCU students participating in Footprints on the James, a five-week experiential course to learn about the biodiversity and history of the James River. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Traversing the James River to learn about its biodiversity and history

Students participating in VCU’s experiential Footprints on the James course are also helping professors from across the U.S. test new river-based field lessons.

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A dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students and one Reynolds Community College student have just returned from a quick canoe trip at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Their assignment: Paddle out from the dock and observe any litter, estimate its age and record its location.

“What did you all see out there?” asked instructor Sarah Gordon.

“Plastic. Glass and plastic,” said one student. Another held up a Blow Pop wrapper she’d scooped out of the water, along with a plastic bottle she found that had a plant growing out of it.

“That’s great,” Gordon said. “The experiment we’re doing today is asking: Are there microplastics in the water here? Why or why not? And how would you test that?”

Over the next couple of hours, Gordon, who teaches at Colorado Mountain College, led the students through the process of collecting samples from the water, and then using microscopes to detect any microplastics that might be present.

“It’s easy to look at a plastic bottle floating around in the water and assume, ‘Oh, that must be where microplastics are coming from.’ But your shorts, your shoes, your sunglasses, my watch – all of that is contributing,” Gordon said. “We know [microplastics] are in the food web. The very smallest living organisms in the rivers are mistaking them for food items. And then whatever eats that little organism, usually a bug, gets eaten by a fish. And then a bigger fish comes along and eats that smaller fish, and then a bald eagle comes along. And so that’s biomagnification, where a lot of little animals are eating little pollutants. And then because they’re being consumed by more and more layers in the food chain, microplastics work their way up to a higher level of the food chain, ultimately into us.”

A ‘river rendezvous’

Gordon was one of 10 freshwater scientists from across the U.S. who visited the Rice Rivers Center, located along the James River in Charles City County, Virginia, to incubate immersive field study lessons based on the nation’s rivers.

They were visiting as part of a five-year National Science Foundation grant to James Vonesh, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, to establish a collaborative network of more than 100 professors across 35 states focused on providing undergraduate STEM education through inclusive, interdisciplinary and immersive field studies focused on rivers. The instructors were the first of 40-50 instructors who will develop new courses and open-source educational resources focused on river field studies.

Gordon’s lesson on microplastics in rivers was demoed for students in VCU’s Footprints on the James, an experiential course in which students spend five weeks traversing the James River by kayak, canoe and raft to learn about its natural and human history.

“The overall goal of the [National Science Foundation] workshop is to build instructor capacity to lead river field courses – even ones that take students overnight on rivers,” Vonesh said. “Basically, we are teaching professors from around the country how to do courses like our Footprints on the James.”

First launched in 2014, Footprints on the James – which is a collaboration of the VCU Center for Environmental Studies, the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Rice Rivers Center and the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program – returned this year following a COVID-19 hiatus.

This summer’s Footprints on the James includes two courses: Footprints on the James: The Natural History of the James River Watershed, taught by Daniel Carr, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, and Environmental Studies 491 River Field Practicum, taught by Vonesh. 

“When I read the course description, it scared me – but in a good way,” said Kiki McDonnell, a biology major who’s entering her senior year. “I felt like it was something big that I needed to do and put me outside of my comfort zone.”

Two women sitting in a canoe with a man behind them bracing the boat
In the Footprints on the James course, students traverse the James River by kayak, canoe and raft. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Ella Buckwalter, a rising junior environmental studies major, said she wanted to participate in Footprints on the James to learn more about the river and also to connect with other students who love being outside and learning.

“I was really interested in learning about the flora and fauna surrounding the river that runs right through our university's city,” Buckwalter said. “I didn't really know a lot about the James River because I didn't live in Richmond before I moved to VCU and I really just wanted to connect with the state that I had lived in my whole life.”

Following three days of exploring the James River in Richmond, McDonnell, Buckwalter and their classmates set out via sea kayaks from Ancarrow’s Landing to Dutch Gap, Presquile National Wildlife Refuge and the Rice Rivers Center. The students and faculty members received safety training, and the faculty members have certifications in river safety.

Along the way, the students collected data via an app called iNaturalist, recording species they observed. In the first leg of the trip, the students had already logged more than a thousand observations of nearly 300 species.

River-focused field education

Over the course of several days at the Rice Rivers Center, the students split into two groups and attended the lessons being developed by the scientists in the river instructor training workshop. Along with Gordon’s lesson on microplastics, there were lessons on the importance of groundwater for streams, how aquatic insects colonize detritus in rivers and more.

Danielle Hare, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut, taught a lesson about considering groundwater’s influence on stream ecosystems.

“[The lesson is about] really making sure that when we’re thinking about a stream, we’re also thinking about where that water is coming from and how groundwater is entering the stream and how groundwater is integrating the landscape,” Hare said. “It’s draining the landscape and entering the stream and that controls a lot of stream biotas' survival rates and ecosystem processes.”

Aaron Koning, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Nevada, Reno, co-taught a lesson on ecosystem metabolism. Having the opportunity to participate in a workshop focused on developing field-based river education was invaluable, he said.

Koning added that he was impressed with the Footprints on the James students and with the course itself.

“It’s been incredible to see what VCU has to offer through the Outdoor Adventure Program and to see that close collaboration,” he said. “To be able to put on something like this for five weeks for undergrad students, I’ve not seen it elsewhere. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Much like the students, the instructors spent some time experiencing the James River during their visit. Prior to the students’ arrival, for example, the instructors received swift-water safety training from Karl Schmidt, outdoor adventure coordinator with the Outdoor Adventure Program.

From ‘zero outdoors experience’ to a trip leader

Ahmed Awadalla, a rising senior biology major, participated in the last Footprints on the James, in 2019. This year, he’s taking part as a trip leader through the Outdoor Adventure Program.

“Karl [Schmidt] told me that they were doing Footprints again for the first time in a couple of years. And it just so happened that I had the previous experience of being in Footprints and knowing the exact structure,” he said. “And so now as a trip leader, I help more on the logistics end and help make sure that we manage risk and that we fulfill the goals of the trip.”

Awadalla said VCU students are lucky to have the chance to participate in experiences like Footprints on the James.

“We’re really fortunate that the [Outdoor Adventure Program] can work with Life Sciences and others at VCU to offer this sort of experiential learning that can really help people progress in their career,” he said. “I mean, I took this class when I had zero outdoors experience. Now I work as a trip leader for the OAP.”

Looking ahead

Following the overlap – they called it a “river rendezvous” – of the instructors and the Footprints on the James students at the Rice Rivers Center, the journey for both groups continued. The instructors headed upriver, while the students continued to Jamestown.

Following that, the students will travel to the upper James, in Alleghany County, Virginia, to begin exploring that region. Footprints on the James will wrap up June 21-23 back at the Rice Rivers Center, where the students will present their research findings and take a final practical exam.

Vonesh said the river education workshops will continue for the next four years.

“This is our backyard and we’re excited to share the James River – the lower, falls and upper, three biogeographic regions of the river, with the participants,” he said. “The idea is that it’s a national network and we’re trying to expose the faculty, the participants in the network, to different home rivers and so we’re excited that next year we’ll probably be on the San Juan River in Colorado. And the next year after that is planned for the Klamath River in Northern California.”