A River Runs Through It: Bringing History Home
Story posted June 22, 2009
It doesn’t take much to make local history fun for a class of eighth graders. Just throw in some bathroom humor and you have them enthralled.
Poised to address a classroom at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Wallace Scot McFarlane ’09 figured that out fast enough. He was trying to describe the sulphuric smell of the Androscoggin River early the 20th century, when it was used as a dump for chemical waste by paper factories.
“The Androscoggin River used to smell like rotten eggs — you know, gas,” he said. The room erupted into peals of laughter.
The interaction was part of an ongoing give-and-take between students in Matthew Klingle’s community-based learning class, Environment in North American History, and eighth graders in Brunswick-area schools. For the past two years, Bowdoin students like McFarlane have visited eighth-grade classrooms to get feedback on content they are developing for an online curriculum about the Androscoggin River.
“The goal is to help local Maine middle-school students learn about the state of Maine by showing the relevance of history to a place they know well … the Androscoggin River,” says Klingle. “We also want to show middle school teachers — as well as other K-12 teachers — how they can connect environmental history to their teaching.”
The interactive Web site, The Androscoggin River: A Living History, offers a rich environmental history of the river by connecting topics such as water pollution, fish migration and dam construction to common themes in America and Maine history — from immigration politics.
To build it, Klingle’s students have been scouring records at the Maine Historical Society, Maine State Archives, the Muskie Archives and local historical societies for primary and secondary materials on the river.
For the teachers’ area of the site, the students contributed more than 30 essays, with annotated bibliographies, on topics including: “The Bridges of Topsham,” “Shoe Mills and French Canadian Workers,” and “Maps and Pollution Along the Androscoggin.” Broadly, the topics cover natural resources, industry and labor, water quality and pollution, and Native Americans and the environment.
For students, the material is presented through visually rich interactive project sections that include scanned newspaper articles, old photographs, and maps. Zooming technology lets students hone in on details of the online archival materials. Study questions about each object are embedded in the Web interface; they pop up when the mouse rolls over each document.
These technical bells-and-whistles were developed by a team of Bowdoin students — Duncan Masland ’11 and Jane Koopman ’10 — who worked with Bowdoin Senior Software Developer Tad Macy and Environmental Studies Program Manager Eileen Johnson to develop the interface. Johnson also coordinated regular meetings between the development team, students, and middle school teachers.
Before posting their ongoing research, Klingle’s students present their new material to students in local schools to test its usability.
“It really ties in with middle school since all of our kids have laptops,” notes Mt Ararat social studies teacher Bill Hale, Bowdoin Class of ’72. “We use technology in a lot of different areas, but we don’t have many resources for local things. We don’t just use it in social studies. Some science teachers have used the site’s maps to check out water quality when they are studying environmental issues.”
Gauging Environmental Perception
There is a pronounced generation gap in the perception of the Androscoggin River, according to a 2008 survey conducted by Bowdoin College and the Androscoggin River Alliance. Students of Bowdoin professor DeWitt John, an environmental policy expert, helped to design and conduct a survey of nearly 1,000 residents who live along the river. They found a younger generation less cognizant of the river's cleanup than were its older residents. Read an editorial in the Lewiston Sun Journal.
Beyond the material itself, adds Hale, the interchange between the eighth graders and Bowdoin students is invaluable. “It’s great for them to see high level research, to see what college student do to be successful,” he says. “It’s a great role model. Having them in the classroom is nice — my students are pretty awed. And I know some Mt. Ararat students have visited Bowdoin classrooms as well.”
“Last year and again this year,” notes Klingle, “the presentations on 1970s water pollution seemed to generate the most interest among the middle-schoolers. Suddenly, stories they had heard from their parents about not swimming in the river, or about the paint peeling off the walls, it made sense. The kids were concerned. Knowing about the past … it makes them think, what can we do today?”
It didn’t hurt, of course, that the word “stink” figured prominently in one archival newspaper story, “’The Big Stink’ Becomes a Problem of the Past,” from a 1951 edition of The Bates Student. The story details the efforts of Bates Professor Walter A. Lawrance (cq) to champion the river’s cleanup. “The Androscoggin seemed to behave for a while, but in 1947 it went hog wild again in what seemed like an effort to gas everyone,” it reads.
“Well,” says Klingle, smiling, “we want to find what topics interest them and what documents they will gravitate toward. Like all middle school students they are most entranced by the scatological …”
The Androscoggin River: A Living History is being developed, in part, with support from the Gibbons Summer Internship and Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good.
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