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Immersive Learning

Freshman seminar explores history and impact of Chicago waterways

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November 12, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Produced by Matt Paolelli

A small group of Northwestern University students lined up in one crayon-colored kayak after another for excursions first on Lake Michigan right off of Northwestern's Evanston campus and then, on another day, down the Chicago River through downtown Chicago.

Immersed, so to speak, in their lessons (albeit with lifejackets), the undergraduates got a firsthand feel for the issues they have been discussing all quarter long in their freshman seminar "Lake Michigan and the Chicago River."

Their instructor, Seth Stein, the William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, well understands the beauty of tactile lessons. He led the kayaking expeditions before Chicago's bitter weather arrived, allowing students to sense the power and utility of the two bodies of water that have defined the growth, economic development and history of Chicago.

Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, he said, present tangible examples of how human societies are shaped by their natural environments.

"We went kayaking to get a feel for what it was like for the early explorers," Stein said. "When you actually get on the lake, even right off campus, you appreciate what a very big and a very powerful thing it is, in a way that you cannot appreciate just by looking out at the lake."

Paddling down the river, for example, he said, gave the students a much better understanding of why Father Jacques Marquette, the famous French explorer, had to spend the winter of 1674 in Chicago because he couldn't get to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Kayaking also brings home the vibrancy of the lake and river today. "You see that the Chicago River is still a working river," Stein said. "It still is very much the heart of the city."
This is the first time the 16-person class has been offered as a freshman seminar option to students in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Weinberg students are required to complete two freshmen seminars and rank their preferences from a diverse list of course offerings.

The seminar draws upon a variety of disciplines - the earth sciences, anthropology, history, political science -- to show how the Chicago area's proximity to natural waterways has influenced its evolution. Discussion topics have ranged from Chicago's development during the Ice Age and the French explorers' roles in the city's history to the Burnham Plan's transformation of the city and current environmental issues.

The interdisciplinary nature of the seminar works well, Stein said. "We have a mix of student interests in the class, and different people of different interests can contribute different things."

Topics: University