Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mississippi River Delta Institute: A New Beginning

Water & Watersheds
By John Shepard

Cruising the swirling, murky currents of the Mississippi River among huge ocean-going ships on a Port-of-New-Orleans fire boat is an extraordinary experience that gets a person thinking. At least, it sure did for our group of 25 at this summer's first-ever Mississippi River Delta Institute.

A half-dozen of us—educators from the Mississippi's headwaters region—joined up with twenty colleagues who live and teach in the greater New Orleans area.  After our river excursion, the northerners talked about the contrasts between the upper Mississippi's relatively pristine water quality, accessibility, and use as a recreational resource compared to the industrial waterway so thick with commercial traffic that we witnessed on this sunny, breezy June afternoon. The Delta teachers I spoke with said the experience was notable for them because there are so few opportunities for seeing close up what's happening on the river—they were struck by the incredible scale of activity on this watery highway.  For both groups, a seed had been planted that this is the river that we share—and it belongs to all of us.

In the days that followed, more contrasts and connection points emerged for everyone.  We experienced first hand some of the complexities of living in a community that is below sea level, surrounded by dynamic coastal environments that are undergoing significant changes caused by mix of human and natural forces.

This post-Katrina flood wall protecting St. Bernard Parish was visited by the group. Living with water was a theme that ran throughout the Institute experience.

Start of a Three-Year Initiative

The intensive three-day Mississippi River Delta Institute was held June 15-17 and based at the Meraux Foundation's Docville Farm some 10 miles downstream of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. The foundation has committed funds for three years of Institutes with collaborative leadership provided by CGEE and the University of New Orleans' Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Studies (PIES). Further support was offered by a host of regional experts on Delta environments.

Following our Big River journey the first day, other highlights included an exploration of coastal marsh habitat in a fleet of canoes launched from a PIES field station near the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Day three featured an immersion in urban water issues based at the St. Bernard Schools' magnificent new Maumus Center, which has state-of-the-art storm water management features.

Institute Impacts

"There were a few things in this workshop that I've never thought about before, and I teach [these subjects] every year," said Barry Guillot, a science teacher from Harry Hurst Middle School in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. "Like understanding how clay [suspended in the river] is shaped like plates so it floats and sand is shaped like bowling balls so it sinks fast—that came right through to me. It's going to be part of my repertoire forever."

"The content is so interesting and so new—there was so much to learn!" reflected Denise Cote, Curriculum Lead of Stillwater Area Public Schools who led a delegation of educators from her district. "I liked the tie-in with pedagogy, too—here's something you can do with your kids; here's how I would do things with my students. Letting students be curious and ask questions and letting that lead to answers and discovery. I've enjoyed that approach."

Here's how the event played in the local press: a New Orleans Times-Picayune blog post about the institute. Looks like the start of something big!

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