Bridging the Discovery Divide

Even in the midst of the global pandemic, RiverWorks Discovery continues to expand educational programming, with specific efforts targeted toward middle school-aged students.

It’s no secret that the Mississippi River — and the commerce, culture and opportunity it affords the maritime industry — is one of the main economic assets in South Louisiana. But who are the workers making it possible, and does our next generation workforce know what careers are available right here in our region?

These are the questions that RiverWorks Discovery seeks to answer with both classroom education and its interactive event series, Who Works the Rivers (WWR). The river industry-supported program began in 2011 as a collaboration between the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, the Waterways Association of Pittsburgh and RiverWorks Discovery (RWD), which is based at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium located in Dubuque, Iowa.

Since then, WWR has branched out to more than a dozen cities, providing industry partners and employees from different maritime specialties an opportunity to introduce high school-aged students to the Mississippi River and educate them about the career paths and mobility available in the industry. The Port of South Louisiana is one of several local sponsors who are helping to bring RWD programs like these to youth statewide.

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Past events in Orleans and St. James Parishes have been widely attended, with the most recent event being held at the River Parishes Community College (RPCC) campus in Reserve. Held just two weeks before social distancing and stay-at-home mandates took effect, the RPCC program was the first to bring together high school and college-aged students from St. Charles and St. John the Baptist Parishes.

And even though in-person events have been temporarily disrupted, RiverWorks Discovery and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium have continued working to expand their educational offerings. There’s a crucial demographic they want to reach next, one at a critical junction in the career-defining process: middle school students.

The plan for achieving this is a formulated curriculum that can be integrated into middle school classrooms over time. Although the curriculum is being designed and tested in Dubuque, its structure will allow for schools in other areas to pick up and modify the lessons. Teachers will be able to tailor discussions to their school’s respective region and industry, with a focus on careers available in their area.

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“Some of the feedback we’ve gotten from educators is that the middle school age is where they start putting in more preparation toward building future careers,” says Andra Olney-Larson, RiverWorks Discovery Coordinator. “One of the things we’re hoping to do is focus on the diversity of careers, so we’re working with a local educator and taking input while the curriculum is being built. We’re making sure the lessons can be picked up as a unit and applied to other

areas like economics, sociology and history. That way, we have a well-rounded curriculum that meets state needs and is inspiring for students.”

Jared McGovern, Curator of Conservation Programs at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, is one of the key players in developing the middle school curriculum. He says that while WWR events are more inquiry-based for high school students — allowing them to talk and interact directly with professionals — the middle school curriculum is built around phenomena-based learning.

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“In phenomena-based learning, teachers assume the role of a facilitator rather than taking on direct instruction and coordination,” McGovern says. He explains that students would follow their own questioning progression after being exposed to the phenomena — in this case, lessons and presentations supplemented by WWR videos and materials. “Once the students are engaged, the question the teacher poses is: Who works in these careers? Students can explore components of the river and are asked to reflect on their own interests before following their line of inquiry and exploring different river-centric careers.”

Further learning would be centered on student-driven questions and individual explorations, with the option to host a career fair or another interactive event where students could present their research to their peers. Students would be empowered to develop any kind of activity or presentation model to represent the career they’ve chosen. The beauty of this curriculum, McGovern says, is that teachers would be able to integrate a complete, prepackaged set of lessons, making it easier to adopt in other states that RWD serves and where there are plentiful maritime opportunities, like Louisiana.

Dawn Lopez, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Associated Terminals and Turn Services, says that focusing on middle-school aged students is important for the continued prosperity of the River Parishes region. Along with the Port of South Louisiana, both Associated Terminals and Turn Services are RWD sponsors who are closely involved in programming and outreach.

“This is really important for the Port of South Louisiana because of how industrial the region is. Middle school students might already understand the significance of plants, but the river is of equal importance,” Lopez says. “We’ve been lucky to develop a relationship with RWD and the Port to grow this program in the River Parishes. We want to continue that growth and show more students the importance of the river to their jobs and their area.”

Moving forward, RWD’s plan to further that growth and education extends beyond classroom curriculum. A completely virtual WWR program is being developed to expose even more students to the diversity of maritime careers available. Once launched, it will become a permanent fixture of RWD’s programming, even once social distancing mandates are eased. The recent addition of Laura Martin, RWD South Central Liaison, forecasts additional expansion in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana, so partners and participants can look forward to even more opportunities in the near future.

For more information on educational programming, events and outreach, visit RiverWorks Discovery at riverworksdiscovery.org and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium at rivermuseum.com.

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