A River Through Time: Managing the Upper Mississippi River

Kent C. Kirkby
University of Minnesota
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Students explore river processes by following the Army Corps of Engineers' historic efforts to 'improve' the Mississippi River channel for navigation. Students design a river management scheme of wing dams and riprap that mimics the Corps' early efforts to force the Mississippi River to erode a deeper, more navigable channel. They then compare the probable environmental consequences of their plan, with that of the Corps' subsequent lock and dam construction program.
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Undergraduate, breadth-requirement service course that is specifically designed as a concluding Earth Science course. Course's goal is not to prepare students for a geology career, but to help them acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be more informed citizens of an increasingly global society.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

None necessary.

How the activity is situated in the course:

One of a sequence of labs designed to explore the historic interactions of geologic processes and human society.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:



Content/concepts goals for this activity:

We want students to realize how river processes operate by consciously manipulating those processes to attempt to force a river to carve a deeper, more navigable channel. Students have to design a river management program that can achieve a set goal of 'improving' the river system from the standpoint of commercial navigation.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

By mirroring the Corp's historic attempts to 'improve' the Mississippi River, students should gain an understanding of the critical historic importance of river systems to human society and an appreciation for how highly modified the present river system is. By evaluating their proposed river management scheme in terms of its environmental cost, they should also gain an appreciation of a river system involves much more than flowing water.

Other skills goals for this activity:

Students work in groups to analyze a natural river system, design a river management scheme and consider the environmental implications of their scheme. They must then individually summarize their conclusions in two essays that analyze the environmental implications of historic efforts to manage the Mississippi River.

Description of the activity/assignment

An attempt to help students better understand both the nature of river flow and its significance to human society, this lab follows the historic efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to 'improve' the Mississippi River channel for commercial navigation. Students start by taking a section of the natural river channel and designing a river management program of wing dam and riprap construction that would manipulate the river's natural erosion and deposition processes to force the river itself to carve a deeper, more navigable channel. They then compare their plan to the one designed by the Corps and consider the implications of any significant differences between the two schemes. They are then asked to determine the environmental consequences of their proposed plan on the greater river system.

After this initial exploration, students compare the Corp's early efforts at wing dam and riprap management with its later plan of lock and dam construction and again investigate the impact of the two management schemes on the greater river system. The lab also considers differences in the cultural perspectives of 19th century Dakota and Euro-American communities regarding river systems. In concluding essays, the students must consider the environmental aspects of river management, specifically recognizing what was lost from the river system the Dakota originally knew.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The concluding essays provide one measure of what students have learned, but this assessment is backed up by questions, on lecture exams and the course final, that seek to learn what students have retained from the lab at the semester's end.

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