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A river runs through it

2:19 PM  Aug 30th, 2011
by Michelle Tedford

“The river changes every day. Some days, you love it. Others, you’re just frustrated by it.”

And on this sunny July day, senior Bethany Renner says she is loving it. The sky is blue and the Mad River, an artery winding through East Dayton toward downtown, gurgles over rocky riffles at a pace easy enough to be navigated by the novices of the group she’s leading.

Renner, blond hair in a tight ponytail, knifes her kayak through the water. She alerts boaters to a water hazard ahead, an old bridge piling. More students are teaching in other disciplines, pointing out a blue heron the boaters keep scaring downstream (biology), the clarity of the water (geology), the factories operating alongside (economy) and an outflow pipe that drains stormwater and whatever else eastside residents dump down the storm grate (public policy).

This summer, the River Stewards of the University of Dayton’s Rivers Institute taught nearly 200 paddlers — professors and students, mayors and council members, artists and engineers — in their floating classroom, just one way the students are fulfilling their promise of bringing Dayton to the river.

Senior Alex Galluzzo is paddling sweep on the trip and talking a nautical mile a minute. “My first job is to be sure everyone gets safely down the river,” he says. “Then I’m going to throw a big blanket of information on you, and if you can crawl out with one or two facts, I’m good with that.”

What started as a river trip with two dozen honors students in 2004 has grown into a sea change emanating from the University’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community. The Rivers Institute’s staff, community partners, faculty and committed students can now be found at the table of every major regional discussion regarding water and its connection to economic vitality, quality of life and environmental integrity. Some point to these River Stewards as the catalyst for the regional water discussions of the last five years. All agree that these students and their ideas are changing the landscape and contributing to a national and local refocus on water resources.

 

“The greatest thing I’ve found is that adults are listening to 21-year-olds, and what I say matters.”

Laura Mustee sits on a porch swing on Stonemill Avenue, hair in a ponytail, arms hugging knees to her pink T-shirt, looking every bit a college senior. But the life she describes is something quite unexpected. Since her sophomore year, she’s been part of a 16-member cohort of River Stewards. Members commit to three years of river education, experience and action in addition to their major areas of study.

For Mustee, that’s marketing. But she adds biology, sociology, ecology and economics to the list of what she’s learning, some from faculty and community partners, much from the other River Stewards who represent 27 majors in the interdisciplinary program that is more intense than a club, more amorphous than a major. River Stewards choose each new cohort by application and interview process. The sophomores commit to three years of Friday afternoon classes and service and civic engagement opportunities. They work with their cohort on a senior project. They constantly create new ways to accomplish the Rivers Institute’s mission of helping the Dayton community to see its rivers as a strategic natural resource central to the communal, economic, aesthetic and ecological vitality of the region.

The program stretches students and their leadership potential, and Mustee and others have proven themselves skillful in discussions of public policy, science, economic development and quality of life.

The Dayton Development Coalition is the region’s economic development engine. In 2008, DDC began focusing attention on water as an economic resource. Then the River Stewards got involved — first as guest presenters, then as seated members of the Dayton Water Roundtable — and the conversation evolved to embrace quality of life, environmental stewardship and retention of a young creative class. Maureen Patterson, vice president of stakeholder relations at DDC, calls the River Stewards “visionary.”

“They all speak about the water. They are so excited by it and that inspires the people sitting there,” Patterson says. The stewards’ voices have allowed DDC to better sell the region, she says, by growing educational curricula, pushing technology and innovation, and marketing quality of life.

River Stewards sit on the city of Dayton environmental advisory board. They have presented at the Midwest Ground Water Conference, the Water Management Association of Ohio’s annual meeting and at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. A steward led a presentation to the DP&L Foundation that netted a $250,000 educational grant. Senior AJ Ferguson coordinates the new Ohio’s Great Corridor Association, which brings together governments, businesses and community organizations to promote the Great Miami River watershed.

In the June OGCA meeting, Ferguson took notes and allowed participants to explore ideas — more than 100 he wrote on easel sheets that he taped around the room — to find common threads before he offered careful words of analysis.

That may be the best part of being a steward, he says — being part of the dynamic conversation. “What I get most excited about being in a roomful of mayors and city managers is that I get to test where I am in the quality of the ideas I offer.”

The best example of the Rivers Institute’s collaborative power is the annual River Summit, begun in 2008 and held on UD’s campus. Last spring, it attracted more than 200 of Ohio’s leaders to sessions on recreation, tourism, watershed protection and how nonprofits and governments can work together to garner grant money for river restoration and recreation projects.

UD is the reason the River Summit works, says Amy Dingle, outdoor recreational coordinator for Five Rivers MetroParks, the region’s conservation and recreation organization. She says the University of Dayton, with a reputation for seeking the common good, is the neutral player that can bring together competing interests to understand how our ultimate goals are connected.

In the Great Miami River watershed, those connections extend like the fingers of its tributaries.

Twenty-seven miles upriver from UD is the city of Troy. In 2009, Mayor Mike Beamish welcomed River Stewards who paddled for five days from the headwaters near Indian Lake to Taylorsville Dam north of Dayton as part of their senior project. In Troy they learned about the city’s long connection with the Great Miami River, about its investment in Treasure Island as a family recreation destination and more.

Stan Kegely, Troy’s project manager, is an advocate for the River Summit and for the mission the students espouse. “A stronger river corridor is a stronger Troy,” he says. “A stronger Dayton and a stronger Miamisburg is a stronger Troy. Regionally, when we all grow, we all benefit from one another’s achievements.”

This collaborative mindset is a far cry from the competitive rhetoric once dominant in the region, and Kegley points to the River Stewards as a reason.

Dayton city commissioner Nan Whaley ’98 agrees. “They’ve been the catalyst in the region around water issues. If they hadn’t done the River Summit and didn’t show the excitement and take the leadership role, you wouldn’t see the OGCA, you wouldn’t see the (downtown Dayton) plan. They’ve been the catalyst.”

 

“My friend picked me up from the airport, and the first place I went to was RiverScape (in downtown Dayton) so I could see my river.”

Katie Norris ’10 is now surrounded by waters — geographically, encircled by the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers at the University of Maine in Orono, and academically, as a graduate student studying the impact of native migrating fish called alewives on the local ecology. Her research takes her wading through cold streams and canoeing in lakes that are the alewives’ breeding grounds. But she has never felt more connected than she did as a River Steward in Dayton.

“I’ve always loved nature,” she says. “The Rivers Institute solidified that for me and showed me how to make the connection between my love for ecology and water and the rivers with community and the social piece.”

And the river she so loves is different from the one known by UD alumni from a decade or more ago. During the last 40 years, organizations like the Miami Conservancy District have been working with farmers, factories and municipalities to improve the quality of the water.

Fish kills of 40 years ago are replaced with fishermen who catch prize-sized smallmouth bass in the shadow of the Monument Street bridge. For $6 a half hour, you can rent a kayak on a lazy Saturday afternoon and paddle where the Great Miami River and Mad River merge in the spray of six giant fountains. More than 40 miles of paved pathways along the river corridor connect to 300 more that wind through farmland and prairie, tying Piqua and Urbana to the north through Dayton and Xenia to Cincinnati in the south. Bicyclists share pathways with joggers, dog-walkers, lunchtime exercisers and young families with toddlers muddy from chasing geese. Five Rivers MetroParks’ RiverScape — with its three blocks of gardens, fountains, four-seasons pavilion and bicycle hub — draws all walks of people downtown, including UD students like Norris.

It’s also a river much more accessible to current students thanks to the Rivers Institute. The 2011 cohort, the second to graduate from the program, organized bus trips to introduce University students to recreational amenities and other features of a livable city. The 2012 cohort is helping to begin a bikeshare program; UD students can check out a bike as easily as a basketball and pedal the spur along Stewart Street to connect to the Great Miami River Trail and the city or countryside beyond.

And all stewards are ambassadors. Senior Jenny Biette took her boyfriend and friends to RiverScape on the Fourth of July. As they sat near the levees built to protect citizens after the 1913 flood, the visual communication design major spoke of the glacier 18,000 years ago that deposited the gravel that naturally filters Dayton’s drinking water, making it some of the best in the world.

“It sort of surprises people about how special Dayton is,” she says. “They came to the school  (UD) because they know it’s special, but in Dayton you always run into something new and exciting. The River Stewards have helped to cement us to this city.”

In the Rivers Institute, students become part of the story — and part of the community. As an arm of the Fitz Center, the Rivers Institute educates leaders who build community. Cincinnati native Norris took with her to Maine that need to feel connected to place. She sought out a community of learners and a community of recreational enthusiasts. She also is making sure her scientific research is relevant to people and their concerns — the impact of repatriated fish populations to property values, tourism and fishing. These are values she says she will carry with her always, no matter the name of the river along which she lives.

 

“If we want more students to be civically engaged, we need more hooks.”

For AJ Ferguson, that hook was kayaking. What better way to entice a student than the opportunity to kayak the rivers, bike the pathways and hike the trails? River Stewards talk of this and more when recruiting the next cohort of students, who vie for the 15 or so positions available each year. For fall 2011, 35 applied — for the fun, the intensity and the commitment that will consume most of their formerly free time.

And once they are hooked by kayaking, the rest follows.

“There’s a city out there we want you to enjoy, and when you know it you’ll love it and you’ll want to protect it,” he says.

Ferguson was one of three students who presented at the June Marianist Universities Meeting to presidents, deans and faculty about civic engagement. Civic engagement is a hallmark of Marianist education, and the three Marianist universities (University of Dayton, St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and Chaminade University of Honolulu) are always looking for ways to do it better. Ferguson believes the Rivers Institute is a perfect example.

So does his father.

Dick Ferguson ’73, Fitz Center executive director, sees in the actions of the Rivers Institute a practical wisdom. Students are not necessarily probing the depths of science but are instead identifying the knowledge needed by everyday citizens to make connections and take action. What makes an economics major passionate about the aquifer? Tap that, and you have the key to civic engagement.

“It’s always very clear that in order to get the most out of the students, you have to engage their hearts, heads and hands,” he says. “We tell them, you have to be willing to get wet … and spend every Friday afternoon for the next three years with the Rivers Institute. You’re going to have to use your head and think along with community leaders about how to bring Dayton to the river.”

And that thinking starts with listening. In the Rivers Institute, the 45 or so students work with coordinator Leslie King, graduate assistants and faculty from biology to history to engineering. In meetings, they joke about the dominant brainstorming style called nominal group technique. But it creates a level playing field that both empowers and humbles. A moderator asks each person to contribute an idea. Ideas are written down, but none are discussed until every idea is out, often after many rounds of the room. Then the discussion begins, and the group condenses, collapses and prioritizes the list, in the end formulating a plan for the future and assigning responsibilities.

The Marianists teach us much about a community of equals, Dick Ferguson says, which is part of what the Fitz Center aims to achieve. He points to Brother Don Geiger, S.M. ’55 as a perfect model.

At age 78, the retired professor and Dayton native can be found paddling the river with students, stopping to pull invasive purple loosestrife from weedy banks. A world-renowned environmental biologist, he can also be found at a Rivers Institute meeting of faculty and students, waiting his turn in a discussion where he knows his seniority does not ensure his opinions will win out.

Says Dick Ferguson of the Marianists, “They go in as learners and contribute as learners, not just teachers.”
This makes UD’s Rivers Institute different.

Around the nation, universities are joining with cities and environmental groups in looking at ways to use, protect and market water. The Rivers Institute at Hanover College in Indiana is a hallmark of higher-ed programs. UD invited its director to campus for a presentation when the Fitz Center added rivers to its community-building agenda. He gave an interesting and technically competent presentation on the science of the rivers of the world.

But that’s not where the UD Rivers Institute wants to be. Hanover can be the leader of river science. The University of Dayton is a national leader in community building and defining the space between curriculum and experiential learning, Dick Ferguson says.

And that is where society needs the most help.

“Environmental challenges remain to be solved because we have failed to look at solving them through a lens other than those of science and engineering,” says Dusty Hall, manager of program development at the Miami Conservancy District, a partner of the Rivers Institute from the start. Hall led that first river trip of honors students in 2004.

Water is a potential billion-dollar resource if you take a multidisciplinary view, Hall says, and UD is in the rare position to prepare students to participate in the three bubbles of the water economy — economic vitality, quality of life and environmental integrity.

“There will be no better-positioned group in the country to address issues of water than the Rivers Institute,” he says.

For example, when tackling the issue of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico — nutrification of water that leads to algal blooms and death of sea life — the stewards suggested having Ohio farmers talk with Gulf Coast fishermen. They believe that Ohioans whose actions contribute to hypoxia 1,505 miles downstream would make better choices about fertilizer application if they felt connected to the larger community of farmers, including those who farm the sea. Such conversations could succeed where years of political and public policy discussions have failed.

On a local level, the River Stewards will help advocate and plan for the removal of a low dam in downtown Dayton. It is a drowning danger and an impediment to developing the downtown section of the Great Miami River as a navigable corridor.

“We know how to take out a low dam,” says AJ Ferguson, a mechanical engineering major. “It’s no great feat — you get enough engineers in a room and they can figure it out. But getting through the public policy issue and the public perceptions issues is much more difficult.”

It’s a conversation he’s looking forward to being part of, and it’s the place to which he’s steering his career upon graduation in May.

 

“When I teach kids about the aquifers, I can probe them with questions, but I want them to touch and feel it and by the end ask questions that make me see they understand what an aquifer does.”

Bethany Renner, an early childhood education major, is looking forward to the day when she no longer needs to carry an aquarium full of sand and gravel down an icy hill from the chapel to Holy Angels School near Brown Street.
That day could come in 2012.

This summer, she was one of seven students who received stipends to work on Rivers Institute projects. They shared an office and lived in community, lobbing ideas to one another through open doors at bedtime. Bethany’s project was the Rivermobile, which will take the lessons stewards are already sharing with children — ecology, river safety, history, energy — and house an exhibit in a 53-foot trailer that will become a mobile classroom accessible to students throughout the watershed.

The Rivermobile is the brainchild of Tracy Horan ’10, a Spanish and middle childhood education graduate who created a water curriculum for Holy Angels that worked to build community by getting the children to better understand the place in which they live.

Stewards adapted that curriculum this summer for children in the Adventure Central summer program at Wesleyan MetroPark in West Dayton. Alex Galluzzo, an operations management major, led the camp.

“The whole point of the camp is why Dayton is special, why you should be proud,” he says.

The sixth- and seventh-graders stomped in Wolf Creek, paddled kayaks and made edible aquifers that tasted a lot like sundaes. On the last day, the boys surprised the stewards with a rap naming the area’s five rivers and creeks, and the girls sang about invertebrates, algae and rocks. “It was one of the coolest gifts ever,” he says.

When the Rivermobile is complete, it will be one of many success stories for the Rivers Institute, which is constantly developing new ways to reach larger audiences.

While there are only about 45 River Stewards any given year, the River Leadership Curriculum reaches many more. The interdisciplinary classes use students, faculty and community members as teachers who craft lessons around water topics paired with field trips and guest speakers. Through a $180,000 grant from the McGregor Fund, the Fitz Center and the College of Arts and Sciences developed the curriculum. Graduate assistant Sarah Peterson, a 2010 River Steward alumna, helped assess the curriculum’s effectiveness, and two sophomore River Stewards this summer scheduled the teachers and sessions for the 2011-12 academic year.

It is a powerful educational model, one that demonstrates an effective new approach to learning, says Don Pair, associate dean for integrated learning and curriculum.

“It’s about the opportunity our students get — and I get to experience along with them — to see how community issues, priorities and assets connect,” he says. “Their entire educational experience is completely changed by learning what is on campus or just outside campus.”

He says lessons learned from the river curriculum will be applied to the Common Academic Program, the first major overhaul in 25 years of the University’s general education requirements that will guarantee all students a more experiential, interactive and collaborative education.

 

“I’ve signed a lease. I’m pretty committed to Dayton.”

Maggie Varga ’10 is the kind of person you know you need to hold on to. Smart, committed, connected and energetic, the economics and finance graduate first joined the River Stewards as a way to have fun on the river. She became a leader for her cohort, organizing their senior project from the headwaters of the Great Miami River watershed to Dayton. While completing her MBA, she became the Rivers Institute graduate assistant, and she then transitioned into the Rivers Institute’s summer coordinator. Today Varga, a Columbus, Ohio, native, is looking for a job in Dayton, and she has lots of supporters vying to make a spot for her on their staffs.

“There is a real movement around the rivers in Dayton,” she says. “Something is happening here, and UD was at the forefront of it. It was the enthusiasm of the students going down the river that kind of got the ball rolling.”

Rivers Institute coordinator Leslie King sees the development of Varga’s leadership skills as mirroring the growth of the Rivers Institute. It started as an August kayak for Berry Scholars, who told the Fitz Center it needed to create something more. It became a program for a small cohort, then added a curriculum to reach more students, which has become one of the models of the new undergraduate general education curriculum. Classes for Holy Angels students will become a regional mobile learning laboratory in the Rivermobile. The River Summit will be supported and partially coordinated by Ohio’s Great Corridor Association, created collaboratively with the Rivers Institute.

The growth is good, King says, because 45 stewards can accomplish only so much on Friday afternoons. Because of their community-building and leadership skills, they get to create and complete projects. They develop partnerships that assume some of the responsibilities, allowing those ideas to thrive while the next group of students develops its own projects. And with each new cohort, new priorities emerge.

One question King is now posing to the students: “We’ve done so much for the river in general. How can we now put some of the focus on UD’s riverfront?”

A student asked why we don’t have benches along the levee across from the University’s new River Campus, the former NCR world headquarters. Why can’t you walk from UD, sit and just enjoy the river? Good question.

And be assured they will have good answers, and a meeting employing nominal group technique, and a few field trips, and goals for their cohort as well as goals for life that are quite different than those with which they started UD. Stewards are true leaders in the Marianist sense, building community through civic engagement, bringing the community in which they live together over a shared resource and a common goal.

“I’m the perfect example of this,” says Varga, “of how the Rivers Institute changes your entire course of your college career and your focus in life.”

Bringing Dayton to the river.

Michelle Tedford paddled under the spray of the RiverScape fountains July 1 during a trip down the Mad River led by the stewards. The fountain water, fed by the buried valley aquifer, is a constant 57 degrees.

 

<CONTINUED CONVERSATIONS>

Rivers Institute rivers.udayton.edu

Great Miami River Watershed www.miamiconservancy.org/water/gmrw.asp

Five Rivers MetroParks trail maps www.metroparks.org/GetOutside/Cycling.aspx

Photo by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessIllustration by Randy PalmerPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry BurgessPhoto by Larry Burgess

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