RiverWorks Discovery erases assumptions about the business environment on America’s waterways


Thanks to RiverWorks Discovery, Old Man River got a fresh new look — one that’s changing the way both kids and adults view commerce and culture on domestic waters.

More than a decade ago, AEP River Operations  — a St. Louis-based barge company  —  founded RiverWorks Discovery, an educational initiative designed to promote inland-waterway commerce and the positive role it plays in not only communities hugging the river, but in every Americans’ day-to-day routine.

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“They (AEP) realized there was a disconnect with the public in what they knew about river transportation,” says Errin Howard, the program’s director. “I think a lot of the perception on life, and jobs, and the people on the river was negative and that the dialog about those things was negative.

“So there was a need to educate, because if the public isn’t educated they can’t be supportive of legislation and things like locks and dams on the river,” Howard continues. “An educated public is an engaged public.”

Through the years — thanks largely to a receptive audience and generous sponsorships from 150 agencies and businesses — RiverWorks Discovery has bloomed into a multi-medium campaign with a presence in schools, at local festivals, and at museums. Through a variety of informational and entertaining ways, RiverWorks Discovery — now presented by the National Rivers Hall of Fame and the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium — consistently trumpets the virtues of its mission, “to educate people about the commerce, culture, conservation, and careers of the great rivers of America and their watersheds.”

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The program features a few in-school presentations tailored to be palatable to specifically aged audiences. For grades 3-6, RiverWorks Discovery offers activities that illustrate the delicate and slight environmental thumbprint barges and other ships leave in comparison to trucks and trains.

“When it comes to transportation, shipping on the river is one of the more environmentally efficient modes you got out there — but that’s not widely known,” Howard says. “So we talk about fuel efficiency emissions and we talk about what’s transported on the river fitting into our everyday life. So a barge full of coal, you get to turn on the lights. A barge full of grain, you get to go to the store and buy a box of cereal.”

Older students, essentially kids nearing high school graduation, are schooled on the career opportunities that exist on regional waterways — scrubbing clean many ill-conceived portrayals of life along the river.

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“Jobs on the river are important,” Howard says. “Some of the misconceptions about those who make their livelihood along the river: They’re not educated, they’re gritty, they aren’t stable professions. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Pilots receive massive amounts of training and make a great living in a job with upward mobility. And that’s just one job.

There are many.”

The crown jewel of the RiverWorks Discovery program is its two-year-old traveling museum exhibit. Stretching 2,000 square feet, the interactive educational presentation is outfitted with plenty for both the young and young-at-heart: Table-top displays, flip-up trivia kiosks, 3-D puzzles, large-scale models, a water table, and a fully-functioning miniature lock and dam system.  

Since debuting in 2013, the traveling RiverWorks Discovery museum display has dropped anchor in seven locations, the latest being St. Paul, Minnesota. In March 2016, the RiverWorks exhibit will set-up shop in Washington, D.C., to coincide with the annual Waterways Council meeting.

“You’d be surprised how many adults, who are watching their kids conduct the (lock and dam) model say, ‘Oh, so that’s how a lock works’,” Howard says. “So there’s something for everyone — a lot to read, a lot to touch and a lot to experience.”



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