VCU leads effort to launch national consortium of universities offering hands-on river education

Four researchers conduct research on the shore of a river. A raft with five occupants traverses r...
As part of a new National Science Foundation-backed project, VCU could soon be part of a consortium focused on providing undergraduate biology education through field studies on the nation’s rivers. (Photo contributed by James Vonesh)

Rivers provide essential resources and support diverse biological communities. They are also among the most imperiled ecosystems. Managing fresh waters for human life support as well as biodiversity will require integrative approaches that span traditional STEM disciplines

To help address this need, a number of colleges and universities across the United States — including Virginia Commonwealth University — are using rivers as immersive, natural classrooms for interdisciplinary STEM learning across biology, hydrology, geology and the interplay of human and natural systems.

For example, VCU students traversed the James River for 19 days this summer to learn about the intersection of human and natural history of the river and its watershed. Last summer, VCU students took a similar expedition to the wilderness of Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. Last fall, VCU Environmental Studies teamed up with Lynn Crump of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to offer a course on scenic natural resource policy that involved a field assessment of the Chickahominy River. In addition, the university has partnered with the River Management Society to establish a River Studies and Leadership Certificate that offers training in river-based science, policy, conservation, education and recreation for undergraduate students who aspire to be river professionals.

Now, as part of a new National Science Foundation-backed project, VCU’s river studies offerings could soon be part of a national consortium of colleges and universities focused on providing undergraduate biology education through field studies on the nation’s rivers.

The NSF recently awarded a seed grant of $75,000 to establish a framework for this consortium, called the River-based ImmersiVe Education & Research (RiVER) Field Studies Network.

“The field is where biologists and environmental studies careers are made,” said James Vonesh, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator and assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies at VCU. “When I talk to my colleagues who are professionals in biology, environmental studies around the country, you seldom get feedback like, ‘Yeah, you know, it was in that classroom when it really clicked for me that I was going to become an ecologist.’ No. The fire in the belly almost always starts with some field experience. If we want to share the passion and the excitement and the possibilities of careers in ecology and environmental sciences, these kinds of [river-based field-study] experiences are fundamental to that.”

Vonesh said the consortium would build human and institutional capacity for active learning pedagogy and comparative river biology, would advance integrative STEM training in field settings, and would inspire future problem solvers to address the challenges facing river ecosystems in the 21st century.

The field is where biologists and environmental studies careers are made. … The fire in the belly almost always starts with some field experience. If we want to share the passion and the excitement and the possibilities of careers in ecology and environmental sciences, these kinds of [river-based field-study] experiences are fundamental to that.

In addition to Vonesh, the co-principal investigators and senior partners include Andy Rost, Ph.D., at Sierra Nevada College, and Denielle Perry, Ph.D., at Northern Arizona University. Other senior personnel include Mathieu Brown at Prescott College; John McLaughlin, Ph.D., of Western Washington University; Tammi Laninga, Ph.D., at Western Washington University; Steve Storck, Ph.D., of the River Management Society; Amanda Rugenski, Ph.D., at the University of Georgia; and Joshua Viers, Ph.D., at University of California, Merced. These schools range from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities.

The project is jointly funded by the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences, Division of Biological Infrastructure, and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Division of Undergraduate Education as part of their efforts to address the challenges posed in Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action.

According to the project’s abstract, the RiVER field Studies Network would seek to enhance the quality and capacity of current programs across disciplinary, institutional and geographic boundaries and work to overcome barriers of entry for underrepresented populations and students with differing abilities. It would develop tools to support the creation of river field studies at new institutions and leverage the resources of individual academic programs and professional partners to begin building more capacity for active learning in river field studies.

For example, one aim is to create a pathway for students at VCU and other consortium member institutions to take immersive river-based field study experiences at different institutions under cooperative student exchange agreements. The consortium also would serve as a clearinghouse for curriculum development, best practices on outdoor expedition safety, logistics and more. 

“Sierra Nevada College offers a course on the Rogue River,” Vonesh said. “Augsburg University has their Mississippi River semester. Brevard College has their Voice of the Rivers, which moves from one river to the next. Northern Arizona and Prescott College have their Grand Canyon course on the Colorado. The idea is that this consortium would be a clearinghouse for all of these different experiential courses that are being offered, and to work out the logistics of everything that would be needed administratively for students to be able to be swapped among these courses.”

The consortium’s programs also could be open to students at colleges and universities that do not offer river-based field-study experiences, Vonesh said.

Another way in which the network could expand on opportunities that currently exist in individual academic programs is to create a network-wide comparative river studies curriculum or certificate. By leveraging the courses of individual schools across the network, Vonesh said, it will create something bigger than any one university could accomplish on its own.

“If there was a student who was particularly into it, that student could take a series of courses — here at VCU on the James, and then take a course on the Mississippi and then another river,” he said. “That would really give that student a sense of the commonalities and differences in river issues, science and management across the country.”

The idea is that this consortium would be a clearinghouse for all of these different experiential courses that are being offered, and to work out the logistics of everything that would be needed administratively for students to be able to be swapped among these courses.

Vonesh hopes that following the one-year grant to develop the idea, the NSF awards a larger multiyear grant to get the consortium off the ground. As part of the plan, the consortium would eventually transition into a self-sustaining national organization supporting interdisciplinary river studies across the country.

The activities of the network would coincide with the River Management Society’s biennial training symposium hosted by the RMS, the VCU River Studies and Leadership Certificate program and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. The meeting will be held on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus in May against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program.

One of the key RiVER Field Network workshops will be held at the VCU Rice Rivers Center along the James River immediately before and overlapping the start of the symposium. The grant will cover registration fees for workshop participants to attend the national meeting and meet river management professionals. 

“First, we’ll have our grant workshop, then the national RMS meeting, then comes Dominion Energy Riverrock,” Vonesh said. “So it’s going to be a crazy … 10 days of RVA river mania. Richmond and the James River will be in the national spotlight again.”

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