Using the Missouri River to Integrate Science and Sustainability Across the Curriculum

MARK SWEENEY ( is an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and MEGHANN JARCHOW ( is coordinator of the Sustainability Program and an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, both at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, South Dakota.

Sustainable Rivers is a program working to develop and implement InTeGrate materials at the University of South Dakota (USD). The program uses the Missouri River as a case study for transdisciplinary teaching in courses from across the university, including the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. This program utilizes place-based learning, which has been found to be effective pedagogically (Israel, 2012; Semken, 2012). Our primary hope is that an increased awareness of science and sustainability issues related to the Missouri River will increase science literacy among USD's undergraduate students.

The stretch of the Missouri River near USD has been designated as a national park, yet it is dammed upstream, channelized downstream, and managed for six different — and often competing — uses. This makes it well suited for interdisciplinary teaching and learning. The damming of the river has had severe impacts on the Native American populations who have lived and currently live along the river. It also impacts the geology and ecology of the river and surrounding habitats, the agriculture that largely surrounds the river, and recreation and energy production opportunities along the river. Many USD students are from South Dakota and have some sort of connection to the Missouri River through both positive (family outings) and negative (flood) experiences.

The Sustainable Rivers project includes 12 faculty members who have adapted InTeGrate materials in their courses to teach about the geology, environmental justice, and sustainability aspects of the Missouri River. Participating faculty are teaching courses in the following disciplines: anthropology, biology, business administration, Earth science, English, geography, history, Native American studies, secondary education, speech communication, and sustainability. To kick off the project, the faculty participated in a workshop along the Missouri River at nearby Ponca State Park in Nebraska to learn firsthand about issues related to the river.

Because the focus of Sustainable Rivers was on interdisciplinary learning, participating faculty members used InTeGrate materials to add course content that was outside of the disciplinary focus of the course. For example, Earth science topics were woven into humanities courses or social justice issues were woven into natural science courses. Faculty were introduced to material in a way thatallowed them to choose which aspects of the river to include in their courses, and they adapted relevant InTeGrate modules, such as "Interactions Between Water, Earth's Surface and Human Activity" and "Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources." A set of standard assessments were given in all participating Sustainable Rivers courses. Some courses included field trips to the river.

In the 2015-2016 academic year, approximately 350 students enrolled in courses participating in the Sustainable Rivers project, with 80 percent of those students in lower-division courses and 20 percent in upper-division courses. Of the students in these courses, 65 percent of them were in social science or humanities courses with the remaining students in science courses.

Faculty who participated in the Sustainable Rivers program noted that students appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of learning about the Missouri River. Aimee Sorensen, who instructed Honors Speech Communication, valued her class' participation in Sustainable Rivers. "The most valuable part of this endeavor was the place-based learning component, and how we connected to issues about the Missouri River. I would say this was certainly a success for our mission as a liberal arts and sciences institution!" Elise Boxer, who taught Introduction to Native Studies, noted that "The pedagogies we used in our classrooms varied, but I know that I wanted students to see how sustainability could be addressed and potentially solved using an interdisciplinary approach." David Swanson, Missouri River Institute director, taught a large introductory biology course and recognized that Sustainable Rivers "also allowed me to provide a better foundational understanding to students of the cascading effects of human alterations of rivers, and, by extension, other geological landscapes, on biotic and abiotic features of the environment."

Another goal of the Sustainable Rivers program is to increase faculty knowledge and awareness of Earth science and sustainability through networking. To accomplish this goal, a series of brown-bag meetings were held to encourage the face-to-face exchange of ideas. We feel that the Sustainable Rivers program has created a "river community" on campus that has led to other collaborations in grant proposals and pedagogy. In our view, a unified effort by a faculty with wide-ranging interests stands to improve the value of higher education by helping students see the rich connections between the sciences, humanities, and social sciences through the adoption of place-based learning.


Israel, A. L., 2012, Putting geography education into place: what geography educators can learn from place-based education, and vice versa: Journal of Geography, v. 111, p. 76-81.

Semken, S., 2012, Place-based teaching and learning, in Seel, N. M., ed., Encyclopedia of the sciences of learning, New York, Springer, p. 2641-2642.