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Environmental Studies

Senior Seminar Headed South to New Orleans

Spring Break 2013 marks the third annual trip for Environmental Studies Senior Seminar students to journey down to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana via bus along the Mississippi River, in their course on the “Environmental Connections Between Chicago and New Orleans.”

The first night of the trip is a 5-hour drive south to Collinsville, IL, approximately 12 miles east of St. Louis. That’s where the ES senior seminar class will wake up to start their week-long adventure exploring the themes of their course on “the Environmental Connections Between Chicago and New Orleans.” 

There are several reasons why the small town of Collinsville, Illinois is our first stop. The town is an archaeological hotspot, claiming fame to the remains of the largest pre-Columbian civilization north of Mexico. Here, students will explore the history of a civilization whose livelihoods depended on the Mississippi River. Another stop in the area is the the Melvin Price Lock and Dam, one of the last lock and dam systems to calm the mighty Mississippi before it runs freely to the Gulf of Mexico. Just north of Collinsville is a re-creation of the Piasa Bird, “upon which the darest savages dare not long rest their eyes,” as recorded by Jacques Marquette when he first explored the area. It is also here that the Missouri River, flowing from the Rockies of Montana, meets with the Mississippi River. The class will stand at the point of these rivers’ confluence, and literally get the toes wet in history and nature.

That’s only the first day.

The idea for this course started in 2010, with the occurrence of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (originally, the senior seminar that year was going to study how paper is made). In that first year, the class flew down to the Gulf Coast and spent the week of Spring Break surveying the damage and learning from experts in the area.

The issues that surfaced during that trip have lent the to the sustained study of the ecology of coastal Louisiana, and developed into an understanding of how we, here in Chicago, are connected to it — and the connections turn out to be many.

Understanding the connections between Chicago and New Orleans involves understanding the geography, ecology, and history of a land and of water systems; what follows is an understanding of how consequent human development interacts with them.

The course has continued to evolve, and now students travel via bus, meeting the Mississippi River in St. Louis and following it south, all the way to New Orleans. Stops will include a riverboat tour in Memphis, a cotton plantation and gin in Northern Louisiana, and a research cruise out into the Barrier Islands in the Gulf of Mexico – just to name a few!

You can follow the class as they travel to these stops and others here, and you can also learn from our students who will be developing web pages with individual research topics throughout the trip. Some of the students topics include: agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River; cartography; voodoo culture; and African American life on the Mississippi River.