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Rivers in Space and Time

An assignment for Geology 210: Geomorphology

Curricular materials created for the 2013 SAIL seminar:

Mediterranean Trivium: Earth, Sea, & Culture in Italy

A comparative study with digital posters. This module, used in a course on Geomorphology (Geology 210), examines maps as human constructs that portray features in relationship to each other for specific purposes, for example, to show the position of Mediterranean cities in relation to Jerusalem or Mecca (as the keystones of particular religions), or to represent  relationships between stations in a subway system. Maps which show particular features, such as a river, in a time sequence, may be useful in discerning how that river has changed with time. In order to use maps in such a way, the historical reasons for the maps must be understood.

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Context for Assignment

This assignment is part of Geomorphology, Geology 210, a course that is taught two of every three years. Course enrollment generally runs between 20 and 36 students. In most years, about half the students are junior and senior geology majors and half are undeclared sophomores or majors in other fields (especially Environmental Studies and also Archaeology  (concentrators) and others). In this course, students spend about a month mapping and measuring various aspects of the Cannon River in the Carleton Arboretum. This assignment complements that field study by having students compare the Cannon to two other rivers. After this assignment is completed, students move on to study hillslope and glacial deposits, completing small assignments in each of these areas and a major final project.

Geomorphology has a prerequisite of one of several introductory geology courses, though junior and senior non-majors can be admitted without that pre-requisite. Some field work on rivers and directed readings are essential to student success in the module. Because it is a small group project, it’s helpful if students already know each other.

Although this module is a stand-alone exercise, it follows a major project and set of readings and class discussions on river systems. However, I believe it can be adapted to be either an introductory assignment on rivers or a culminating project in the course. It may also be adaptable to introductory geoscience, physical geography, and environmental studies courses.

In 2013, this project continued a collaboration that will result in an exhibit in 2015-16 in the Perlman Teaching Museum at Carleton. Other parts of this collaboration include work done in Victoria Morse’s Cartography course in winter 2014 and ongoing discussions among Savina, Morse and Carleton exhibits coordinator Laurel Bradley. The Cartography and Geomorphology classes in fall 2015 will contribute explanatory material to the exhibition, conduct tours, and participate in other ways.


Updated May 02, 2016

Learning Goals

  • Students will use historical and contemporary maps (and other images, including air photos) and government records to compare features of the Arno, Lower Mississippi and Cannon River at different periods;
  • Students will relate topography and flood histories of the three rivers to the ways humans use the rivers and to changes in the rivers over time;
  • Students will work in groups to create digital posters to illustrate the changes that have occurred along the Arno or one of the other rivers;
  • Through their poster, students will demonstrate that they have grappled with some of the following “content” questions:

•  What was the nature of the river before human intervention?
•  In what ways have humans intervened on the river and how are these interventions represented on maps?
•  How have human interventions affected the river:  hydraulic geometry (width, depth, gradient, velocity, discharge, sediment transport), plan form (e.g., sinuosity) connections with the floodplain, effects on flood frequency, etc.?
•  How, in turn, are these changes represented on the historical maps?
•  How do maps of different periods represent “reality” in an urban river setting?
•  For what purpose have such maps been constructed and how well do they serve those purposes?

Higher order thinking skills:
  • By relating directly observable features of rivers to accounts of rivers drawn from historical and cartographic sources, students will learn to operate on different scales of space and time.
  • Students will compare different rivers, synthesizing the information in a way that others can understand.
Multidisciplinary analysis:

In the Mediterranean, humans have modified rivers for a variety of purposes (navigation, irrigation, energy, food processing, etc.) at least since the Bronze Age. Millenial-scale climate changes have also affected rivers.  Sorting out what’s natural and what’s not – and the specific effects of humans on river systems – is a central task for geomorphologists, one that requires understanding human settlement and economy in collaboration with historians, social scientists, and interpreters of literature.

In comparing maps of rivers are made for different purposes, students will be practicing multidisciplinary analysis. For instance, the navigational maps of the lower Mississippi from today’s Army Corps of Engineers differ from earlier maps of the same stretches of river. The same is true for the Arno and other Mediterranean rivers. Maps made by sailors show the exact position of the river mouths and the obstacles ships will encounter coming into port. Maps made by individuals living along the rivers may show the variety of daily activities around the river, or may emphasize the bucolic surroundings,  fortifications or plans for improvements, depending on the audience for whom the map was made.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci created maps of two sections of the Arno. Upstream, in the Val-di-Chiana, Leonardo imagined a lake to replace the malarial marshes (Alexander, David, 1984, The Reclamation of Val-di-Chiana (Tuscany):  Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 74, p. 527-550.) Downstream of Florence, while Florence was sparring with Pisa (a marginal battle in the larger fight between local city-states and foreign powers), Leonardo drew up plans to divert the Arno southward through the Funcecchio marshes, isolating Pisa and potentially providing Florence with access to the ocean (Masters, R., 1999, Fortune Is a River: Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli's Magnificent Dream to Change the Course of Florentine History, (New York: Free Press). Recently, artist Florent Morellet’s re-imagined the lower Arno Basin as it would look now if the Machiavelli/Da Vinci project had succeeded four centuries early. Pisa is a shriveled-up little town isolated from the river and the ocean.

Other skills:
  • Learning to read and interpret maps is a central skill for geoscience students and for many other students.  Maps form the basis of spatial analysis of all forms, including Geographic Information Systems.


Updated May 02, 2016

Description of Activity

  • Rivers in Space and Time - digital poster assignment (Fall 2013) - This handout was given to the students in fall 2013 to explain the assignment, list the topics and explain how to use Prezi, the on-line tool for creating digital posters.
  • Rubric for grading digital posters in geomorphology (Fall 2013) - This handout, created by the two student project managers, was used to evaluate the posters created by the student groups.
  • How to design an attractive (electronic) poster by Bart M. ter Haar Romeny and Jelle Barentsz  - This handout was prepared for radiologists submitting posters to a 2003 conference in Europe.  Although these submitters did not use Prezi, the handout has great tips for those of us who are used to static posters at scientific meetings.  I’ve searched without success for the original citation.

Teaching Notes

Students were given two 70-minute class periods and a four-hour lab period to work together on the assignment. The assignment was scheduled during a section of the course when I was away at a professional meeting. I’ve found that with group projects it’s helpful to use scheduled class and lab time for at least part of the work, because students have trouble coordinating schedules to work together at other times.

After I described the different topics, students were asked to choose three or four that interested them. They were also asked if they wanted to be project managers. Based on these preferences, I formed the groups. In this way, each of the students worked on a topic of interest. Because this assignment came midway during the course and students had worked in groups from the start, they knew each other pretty well.

I created folders in the course management system with some starting resources for each of the three river systems. My main goals for this relatively short project – having students compare the river systems and design a poster to communicate those comparisons – did not include having students search comprehensively through library and on-line sources. The assignment could be modified to increase the amount of literature searching students are required to do. In that case, the assignment might be used as a culminating course project, rather than one of several assignments. I found that students did search beyond the resources provided to them, particularly on the internet. In fact, I didn’t think all the student groups made enough use of the materials that were provided.

I found that it was hard to keep the student groups from converging around certain specific elements, such as the effects of major floods, even though my intent was to minimize the overlap between topics. When I do this project again, I will ask the project managers to be more attuned to the possibility of overlap and perhaps ask each group for a progress report halfway through. I’ll also provide a slightly longer statement of what each topic means.


The rubric that was used for this assignment is attached.  It covers content and design features of the poster. Posters are explicitly evaluated on the strength and detail of the comparative and contrasting information about three rivers. All topics were interdisciplinary in the sense that they required students to examine both the physical features and the human uses of river systems. Students were encouraged to include materials from a range of sources from different disciplines (e.g. literature, news accounts, scientific data), but this aspect was not explicitly covered in the rubric.

Resources and Materials

I think that readers of this assignment can still get to one of the 2013 geomorphology posters through the following url:

Examples of web sites discussing digital posters:

Examples of resources specific to this river assignment:

Lead Partner
Mary Savina
Charles L. Denison Professor of Geology, Carleton College
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