Science and Other Stories: Reading the Mississippi River

Julie Maxson, Natural Sciences, Metropolitan State University


This course is an exploration of the nature of science and sustainability, focusing on the local system of the Upper Mississippi River.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, primarily masters programs

Course Context:

The course is designed for students in the Master of Liberal Studies program. Students in this program tend to come from backgrounds in the humanities or social sciences, or from very applied fields such as business, who are engaged in a very broad range self-directed graduate-level studies. We assume that students in this program will have some familiarity with scientific concepts, likely at the General Education level, and likely not recent.

Course Content:

This course takes a view of science as a knowledge woven in the intersections of our own experiences with nature. Ultimately, our experiences with nature and therefore our understanding of science are contained within the fabric of culture.

Coming to know science then invites us to take a trek through nature that sets us on a path to coming to know a great deal about ourselves. This course will take us on a journey down one of the world's greatest rivers, the Mississippi. What is the history of this river and our experience with it? How was it sculpted out of the geological landscape? How has it in turn formed us? These are questions that will help to frame our inquiry into science and it's use in the transformation of nature through engineering and technology.
The course begins with an expanded view of science, as "Story Telling and Story Revising" (Grobstein 2004), as a culturally-mediated mode of addressing the natural world. Through a series of field trips to key sites along the river, we will learn river's story from the perspective of the geological and ecological sciences, at the same time beginning to develop our own narratives about the river, our experience, and our sense of place.
From this introduction to ancient and modern aspects of the river, and to the practice of mainstream science and engineering, we will more fully explore alternative models of scientific inquiry and understanding provided by indigenous peoples, with particular emphasis on Native Science as described by Cajete (2000) and contained in narratives by Ojibwe and Dakotah writers. Through this exploration, we can begin to recognize "Indigenous Science" and "Sense of Place" as mirrors to reflect our own understanding of the natural world.
From this perspective, we come to a critical evaluation of the practices, limits, and perspectives of both traditional "western" science and engineering, and the blended new paradigms of Sustainability Science.

Throughout the course, students will have the opportunity to explore aspects of culture, science, the nature of science, the natural world, the engineered world, modes of story-telling (scientific and otherwise), and other topics related to the Mississippi River that are of interest to them.

Course Goals:

  • Participants will be able to describe the nature of western scientific thought.
  • Participants will be able to describe the nature of several alternative paradigms for understanding the natural world.
  • Participants will be able to critically evaluate the nature of western scientific thought, and of alternative paradigms for understanding the natural world.
  • Participants will be able to articulate the cultural constructs that surround various modes of scientific understanding.
  • Participants will be able to apply these concepts describe and analyze the natural processes, human understanding, selected uses, and management practices of the Mississippi River.


Formative assessments will be developed throughout the course in the form of students' reflections on field excursions, discussions, and guest speakers.

Students will develop a course project related to the themes of science, sustainability, indigenous knowledge, and the intersections of science, culture, and the Mississippi River.


Full Course Proposal (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 156kB Jul17 12)

References and Notes: