Skip to Content

English Meets Engineering: A Powerful Partnership

Editor’s Note: Student Nick Kleese’s poem, “Mississippi Aria,” written in response to his experience with the river, is available at: Mississippi Aria.

Students from Barbara Eckstein's (third from right, back) class, The Story of Water, get up close and personal with the flooded Mississippi River at LACMRERS.

Students from Barbara Eckstein’s (third from right, back) class, The Story of Water, get up close and personal with the flooded Mississippi River at LACMRERS.

Iowa is bordered by two of North America’s largest rivers — the Missouri on the west, and the Mississippi on the east. But for many of us who live in Iowa, our experience of these rivers is no more than a glimpse of water through the car window as we speed over interstate bridges.

Professor of English Barbara Eckstein sees the value in slowing down and experiencing our rivers in a personal, physical way. Students in Eckstein’s class, The Story of Water, examined the relationship between sustainability and storytelling — something that has interested her for a long time.

She wanted her students to touch the river, to feel its pull, and to understand how it shapes our landscape and our lives. Eckstein collaborated with IIHR Research Engineer Doug Schnoebelen to allow the students to experience the powerful Mississippi River in a very profound way. Schnoebelen is director of the University of Iowa’s Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS), which is set on the banks of the Mississippi near Muscatine.

Eckstein, who is also a faculty member of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), says she knew from the beginning that she wanted her students to experience embodied learning on the Mississippi. She found a willing collaborator in Schnoebelen, who delights in helping people get to know the river. Although spring flooding kept the class from going out on the boat, they donned chest-high waders and ventured into the river.

“I wanted them to stand in the Mississippi on the western shore, try to look across, and imagine the Sauk women trying to swim the width of the river with their children on their backs as the U.S. Army and the Illinois Militia fired on them,” Eckstein says. “I wanted them to imagine Priscilla Baltimore trying to ferry slaves from Missouri to Illinois across the river in total darkness. And I wanted them to look down in its opaque depths that made even their feet invisible and have a visceral sense of the topsoil that is leaving Iowa in the waters of the river.”

She adds, “Putting on waders and heading out into the swollen river from its west bank made the river visceral to all of us in ways exactly as I’d hoped.”

Eckstein says she’s had many fruitful interactions with engineers at the University of Iowa. She believes the students and faculty of the UI College of Engineering are unusual in their openness to the broader historical, political, and cultural contexts of their work. These intersections are valuable, Eckstein says. “Nothing happens in a psychological and cultural vacuum,” she explains. “Not a dam, not a robot, not a water-treatment solution.”

After the field trip, Eckstein’s students wrote about their experiences with the river. “A number of them wrote beautifully about what was present and what was absent, what was visible and what was invisible as they walked chest-high in the waders along the river’s flooded shore.”

Student Nick Kleese’s poem, “Mississippi Aria,” written in response to his experience with the river, is available at: Mississippi Aria.

Tags: ,
Last modified on June 19th, 2015
Posted on August 19th, 2013

Site by Mark Root-Wiley of MRW Web Design