Nutrient Pollution in the Mississippi River

Nicole Hill, Bentley University, Natural & Applied Sciences
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Students are introduced to the fundamentals of nutrient cycling (specifically, nitrogen and phosphorus cycling) along with the wicked problems of eutrophication, oxygen depletion, and the development of dead zones. Water quality laws, regulations, and policies are then reviewed along with designated uses of water bodies and associated water quality standards. The wicked problem of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi River watershed is discussed and students are prompted to independently explore the issue further. In assigned groups students generate stakeholder maps connecting processes and relationships between components relevant to nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River. For the culminating activity, each group is assigned to play the role of a specific stakeholder group and convey their perspectives, problems, and proposed solutions to nitrogen loading into the Mississippi River at a mock town hall meeting.

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Learning Goals

1. wicked problems
2. sustainable development goals
3. eutrophication, biochemical oxygen demand, and dead zones
4. reservoirs, processes, and fluxes for the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
5. water quality standards
6. nitrogen and phosphorus loading onto Mississippi River
7. stakeholders
-students explore the spatial distribution of reactive nitrogen in the Mississippi watershed and identify sources, transport pathways, fate
-students synthesize nutrient pollution concepts and the relationship to various stakeholder groups in addition to evaluating potential solutions
-concept mapping and oral presentation skills are developed

Context for Use

-college level activity, 18-24 students in class, private university
-two 2 hr. 50 min. blocks were used to complete this activity
-students should have a general background in water quality indicators (e.g., dissolved oxygen and temperature) in addition to point and non-point sources of pollution to surface waters
-students should be provided with an overview on wicked problems and identifying stakeholders
-this activity took place in the second half of the course after spending the first half of the semester learning about water quality indicators (e.g., temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity) and practicing measuring these indicators in a laboratory setting
-this activity could naturally fit within an environmental science, water chemistry, agriculture, or water resources course

Description and Teaching Materials

Four 1 hour and 20 minute lecture periods are recommended for this activity.
-Instructor should introduce students to concepts from lecture slides ("Nutrient Pollution Lecture", attached)--some of these slides were modified from the "BASICS Module Overview" slides and Wesley Swingley's "Mississippi River Watershed Nitrogen Pollution" slides (
-Instructor introduces the BASICS Stakeholder Mapping Exercise for the Wicked Problem of Nitrogen Pollution in the Mississippi River Basin (use or modify the BASICS stakeholder mapping rubric and instructions:
-Assign students to small groups of 3-4 and have them generate a stakeholder map together
-Provide students with links to helpful resources (see below)
-Refer to BASICS Part 2: Town Hall Meeting on Pollution instructions
-Students should work in the same group they worked with for the stakeholder mapping exercise
-Assign each student group to the provided nitrogen stakeholder groups (
-Students are given the entire class period to work within their groups to plan for the Town Hall Meeting
-Refer to the BASICS Town Hall instructions and rubric (
-After the meeting students should submit a reflection on the following prompts addressed during the mock town hall meeting in addition to the post-activity prompts: 
Prompts for groups to address in their presentation preparation:
1. What is the major problem the city must address with respect to nitrogen/phosphorus pollution?
2. What evidence supports your position?
3. What is your solution?
4. Who benefits from your solution? Who is disadvantaged?
Discussion questions after all groups have made their presentation:
1. What were some of the perspectives and evidence you learned from other stakeholders?
2. What other stakeholder positions can you think of that would be useful to this decision that were not present?
3. Can all perspectives and interests be met in one solution? Why or why not?
4. How might a powerful interest result in an environmental injustice to a more vulnerable stakeholder?
5. Reflecting upon this mock town hall meeting, are there any adjustments you'd make to your stakeholder map? Explain. 
Nutrient Pollution Lecture (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 127.7MB May23 23) 

Teaching Notes and Tips

Instructors should carefully outline the requirements for the stakeholder mapping activity and associated rubric and clarify that students should label the connections between components with actions and/or processes.


The provided BASICS rubrics for stakeholder mapping and the town hall meeting were utilized for the assessment.

References and Resources