Once upon a time on a perfect fall morning, 30 canoes set off on a journey down the Red River.

Where the journey would take them was anyone’s guess. And that was part of the adventure.

So it went Friday morning, when about 30 UND students – all future educators – launched hand-decorated miniature cedar canoes off the Sorlie Bridge and into the Red River as part of the “River of Dreams” watershed education program.

A program of the Fargo-based International Water Institute, River of Dreams gets its inspiration from “Paddle-to-the-Sea,” a 1941 children’s novel by Holling Clancy Holling that follows the journey of a wooden canoe – and a boy’s dream for that journey – through the Great Lakes, down the St. Lawrence Seaway and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Now in its sixth year, River of Dreams incorporates a variety of watershed education components into the curriculum, culminating with the launch of the miniature canoes. Traditionally, the program is targeted toward students in grades four through six who write poems or essays outlining their dreams for the canoes before launching them in the spring as the school year winds down, said Danielle Graham, education program and communication specialist for the institute.

It’s all about learning where the water goes and how that affects everyone’s lives.

“Last year was our biggest year,” Graham said. “When I started working with the program in 2017, that spring we had five schools and maybe eight classrooms. And they were just in Minnesota. And now we’ve seen that grow into 64 classrooms and 38 schools.”

Each canoe is marked with a numbered ID and a website address where people who find a canoe can report the discovery. Some canoes end up on the river bank just yards from where they’re launched; others have made it well into Manitoba, Graham said.

“We had one make it to the shores of Lake Winnipeg this year,” Graham said. “That was really exciting.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of the 38 Minnesota and North Dakota schools that participate in River of Dreams opted to postpone their miniature canoe launches until next spring, she said.

New chapter

The participation of UND students marks a new chapter in the River of Dreams story. The students are enrolled in TEAM – short for Teacher Education Through Applied Methods – a course that provides field experience for aspiring educators, said Bonni Gourneau, an associate professor in UND’s College of Education.

Institute staff in early September gave a two-hour virtual presentation to TEAM students and UND faculty about the River of Dreams program, Graham said.

“They participate as if they were students in this program, and after completing the launch of their canoes, they're then going to create lessons that are kind of a spinoff of the program to build out a curriculum that’s all based around a central topic but in different disciplines,” Graham said. “They’re going to get practice in building curriculum that way.”

That also helps the institute fine-tune the program and how it's being used in the classroom, she said.

“Having college students who are going to be educators is new for us and we’re really excited because we get to learn from them, too,” Graham said. “We’re excited for the opportunity to hopefully partner with them or get more schools in the program.”

While fall semester marks the first collaboration between UND and the River of Dreams program, UND has applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the program on campus and hopefully expand it to schools in other parts of North Dakota, said Julie Robinson, an assistant professor of teaching and leadership at UND.

“We’re really excited and we just really think that what the International Water Institute is providing for students is just this experience that’s so rich and integrated, and it gets them really immersed in their own community and the watershed that’s right outside their front door,” Robinson said. “We think that’s really important for students in terms of learning about science and engineering and just learning about their community.”

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