professor Darryl Teittinen helps a student identify a benthic macroinvertebrate - Sierra Nevada University environmental science and outdoor adventure leadership students in field courses on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River
"Nothing compares to field work in science. Everything changes when you hold things in your hands and see the complexity in action."

NSF Grant for Biology Field Studies

“Nothing compares to field work to get students excited about science. Theories and facts take on a whole new meaning when you can hold things in your hands and see the complexity in action. Darryl and I are really excited to be part of this project.”

Dr. Andy Rost

Field studies are one of the most effective ways to inspire STEM students and catalyze their transition from student to scientist. It’s in the field that students most often discover the excitement of working in the environmental sciences. Despite this, field study options in undergraduate biology are declining nationwide. A collaboration of eleven professors and river professionals from eight institutions around the country, including Sierra Nevada College, is working to reverse this trend. They have been awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation grant for a project to augment immersive field studies of river systems.

Dr. Andy Rost, Associate Professor and Chair of the Science Department, and Daryl Teittinen, Assistant Professor in the Outdoor Adventure and Leadership Program, are the SNC Tahoe participants. They have been teaching a popular interdisciplinary field course on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon for seven years. The combo of a natural history course, a whitewater expedition class, and 50 miles of remote Wild and Scenic river created a powerful learning experience. This project gives them a platform to share the immersive undergraduate teaching that makes an SNC education so exciting.

Why Rivers?

The “River-based ImmersiVe Education & Research (RIVER) Field Studies Network” focuses on rivers for three reasons.

(1) Rivers are natural classrooms for interdisciplinary STEM learning. Biology, hydrology, geology, and the interplay between human and natural systems are all critical pieces of the puzzle.

(2) Rivers offer unique logistical solutions for many barriers to backcountry field studies. It’s a lot easier to haul your gear in a boat than on your back!

(3) Rivers have been critical for human survival and culture since pre-history. Despite that, they are also some of our most at-risk ecosystems. Our rivers need scientists and professionals who can work together across many fields. The challenges only get more complex and urgent with time.

The project is funded through the Research Coordination Networks (RCN) in Undergraduate Biology Education (UBE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant provides one year of incubator funds to set up a five-year project. During that time the collaborative will hold three face to face workshops; build an open-source cross-watershed field course teaching module; develop best management practices for river field courses; develop a web portal framework and promotional video; and write a full proposal to solicit five years of funding.

The first four-day workshop will be hosted by professors Rost and Teitinen in Lotus, CA on the American River. One goal of the first workshop is a survey to identify barriers to undergraduate field work. This is the first step towards a key part of the initiative – encouraging broader engagement with field courses by students of all backgrounds. The second workshop will be hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University at their Rice Rivers Center in Richmond, VA. This workshop will overlap with the biannual River Management Society (RMS) Symposium. That will provide lots of “cross pollination” between academics and river professionals.

Rivers Across Boundaries

Another goal of the project is building student exchange agreements. That way, river courses offered at one college could be available to students at all the institutions in the group. In addition to SNC’s Rogue River course, VCU offers a course on the James River in Virginia. It has taken students on similar field courses to Idaho’s Lower Salmon River and Virginia’s Chickahominy River. Northern Arizona University and Prescott College have a course on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Augsburg University offers an interdisciplinary Mississippi River semester. The students travel from Minneapolis to New Orleans via canoe, bus, and train. Brevard College has a Voice of the Rivers course, which explores several rivers. Eventually, the courses might also be opened to students whose schools do not offer river field studies.

The RIVER project’s long term goal is an interdisciplinary collective that is “greater than the sum of its parts”. The potential benefits are as varied as the people, places, and institutions involved. They include

  • Recruiting more – and more diverse – students into STEM fields through field courses which are exciting and accessible.
  • Helping students develop real research skills and experience as undergraduates.
  • Setting up course exchanges and cooperative research projects that can share expertise, protocols, tools, and data.
  • Supporting a new generation of innovative scientists, educators, managers, and environmentalists.

Consortium Information

Principle Investigators:

James Vonesh, Ph.D., lead principal investigator, assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
[Virginia, Idaho, South Africa]
Denielle Perry, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, the School of Earth and Sustainability at Arizona State University
[Southwest U.S.]
Andy Rost, Ph.D., co-principal investigator, Sierra Nevada College
[Rogue River, Oregon]

Steering Committee:
Mathieu Brown, co-director of the Grand Canyon Semester at Prescott College in Arizona
[Southwest U.S.]
Steve Storck, Ph.D., training coordinator at the River Management Society
John McLaughlin, Ph.D., and Tammi Laninga, PhD, Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University
[Pacific Northwest]
Joshua Viers, Ph.D., director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at University of California, Merced
Amanda Rugenski, Ph.D., the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia

Collaborating Institutions:
Sarah Yarnell, Ph.D., the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis
[Western U.S.]
Alison O’Dowd, Ph.D., Humboldt State University
Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D., International Society for River Science and Virginia Commonwealth University
Joseph Underhill Ph.D., Augsburg University
[Mississippi River]