VERMILLION — For Tim Cowman, the best classroom for learning about the Missouri River can't be found in any building.
Instead, the best site lies over the bluffs and down the highway — on and along the river itself.
Cowman directs the Missouri River Institute (MRI) at the University of South Dakota. The MRI develops and promotes research, education and public awareness of the natural and cultural resources of the Missouri River Basin.
Cowman spoke Wednesday about the MRI during its annual research symposium on the USD campus. The daylong event featured academic and environmental experts discussing the science and future of the Missouri River.
The MRI benefits from its location and its ability to provide hands-on experience for students, staff and the general public, Cowman said. MRI students and staff find all three stages of the river within a few miles of campus, he said.
"We are physically along the Missouri River with a wide diversity of conditions," he said. "We have the impounded water behind the reservoirs, the free-flowing sections of water and the channelized river from Sioux City to its mouth."
The nearby Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR) contains two sections designated as wild and scenic river. The 59-mile segment runs from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton to Ponca, Neb., while the 39-mile segment runs from Pickstown to Springfield.
The MRI draws its strength from USD experts, Cowman said. Their areas range from biology and earth science to cultural studies and humanities such as history and anthropology, Cowman said.
"We also have the School of Law that works with water law and policy," he said. "Just now, we are adding the School of Education and getting them involved so we have education and outreach with the K-12 students."
MRI collaborates with federal and state agencies and other academic institutions such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Cowman said. The groups conduct broad research ranging from geological and biological studies to water quality and cultural history, he said.
New research initiatives allow USD students to work on a graduate degree related to river studies, Cowman said.
"The student works for two years on a specialized area, and another student comes in later and picks up on it and keeps it going," he said. "We can piece together a long-term study for the habitat on the Missouri River."
Researchers map a dynamic river, ranging from deep to very shallow areas with shifting sand dunes and sand bars, Cowman said.
"The river meanders over time," he said. "It's tough to get a handle on the main channel and what it does to the banks."
The research has paid off and gained national recognition, Cowman said. The MRI won an award for best poster at the Geological Society of America meeting in Oregon.
The MRI seeks to provide new educational opportunities, Cowman said. Classes use USD faculty and guest expert lecturers from the Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Park Service and state agencies.
The issues are as varied as the river itself, Cowman said.
"At Gavins Point Dam, you have the hydropower. You have the sediment issues at Springfield," he said. "You have the river travel with boats, and you have the natural sandbars and the (Endangered Species Habitat) with the Corps."
Student learn by doing, conducting work and studies on the river, Cowman said. "You see firsthand what the process is like on the river rather than learning just by lecture," he said.
The "Missouri River Science and Ecosystem Management" course brings in 13 guest speakers on various issues. The interdisciplinary approach looks at Native American issues, economic development, recreation and tourism, private landowners and biodiversity.
"It's certainly a unique class with a unique approach and a variety of students," Cowman said.
The "Science, Culture and History of the Missouri River" program at Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska targets K-12 teachers. The program has even drawn a teacher from the Des Moines, Iowa, area and studies river ecology, water quality and cultural history.
Ponca State Park offers not only an ideal location for research and teaching but also a unique stretch of the Missouri River, Cowman said.
"It's the place where you have the last few miles of unchannelized river of the MNRR, then it changes," he said. "It shows both sides of the river and its transition from unchannelized to channelized."
As part of its mission, the MRI also conducts the Missouri River Oral History Project, Cowman said.
"We are using South Dakota Public Broadcasting and the Contemporary Media students (at USD) to interview people who lived along the river in the pre-dam era," he said. "We are capturing their stories and their view of the river then versus now."
The final product will be available by DVD documentary, video podcasts and Web site, Cowman said.
The MRI, in conjunction with other agencies and groups, has launched the MNRR Water Trail, Cowman said. The 78-mile segment of the Missouri River runs from Gavins Point Dam near Yankton to Sioux City.
The water trail is an effort by a sponsor group comprised of several academic, federal, state, local and non-profit organizations.
The segment of the river from Ft. Randall Dam to Gavins Point Dam will be added to this water trail in the future. The sponsor group's activities include improving public access to the river, establishing trailheads and routes, and building an interactive Web site to plan float trips and disseminate information.
"We held a float event last August as a kick-off. We had 87 people on a three- to four-hour paddle down the river," Cowman said. "On May 22, we're having another float event to promote the water trail."
Wednesday's research symposium was part of the MRI education and outreach. The presentations were digitally recorded and will be available within a week on the MRI Web site at www.usd.edu/mri. The 2008 and 2009 presentations are also available on the Web site.
This year's presentation topics included management strategies for the river, interim management plans for recent land acquisitions along the river, the effect of owl trapping and removal on piping plover hatchling survival, impact of sediment in runoff from tributaries on Missouri River water quality and Missouri River education initiatives.
Wednesday's symposium provided tremendous learning opportunities, said Theresa Smydra, director of Missouri River Futures based in Hartington, Neb.
"It allows me to get up to date on what is going on with the Missouri River Institute," she said. "We have different events and a couple projects on the river, and this (symposium) is a great way to learn about other events."
Smydra said she enjoyed learning about a wide range of topics. She noted in particular the presentation on the pallid sturgeon research and recovery efforts. She also learned more about the plans for recent land acquisitions along the river.
Wednesday's event also contained an important announcement about the Missouri River Authorization Purposes Study (MRAPS), Smydra said.
"They are holding meetings from May through August, with two of them in Yankton and Sioux City," she said. "At the meetings, they will have stations with an open house format."
Smydra said she was glad to learn more about the MRI research, including opportunities for graduate students. She also wants to see continued communication and understanding among river stakeholders, including landowners.
The MRI symposium provides a major step in the right direction, she said.
"Partnerships are huge, and any outreach is good," she said. " In recent years, I have seen more cooperation and better awareness. There is more sharing of information — what they are trying to do and where they are coming from.
"There are still 'territories' (among agencies and organizations), but the communication has gotten a lot better."