Huxley faculty participating in pilot NSF grant for new RiVER Field Studies Network

  • Students peer into Glines Canyon on the Elwha River, site of the former Glines Canyon dam.
    Students above Glines Canyon on the Elwha River, site of the former Glines Canyon dam. (John McLaughlin photo)

The Pacific Northwest’s rivers are more than just conduits of fresh water to the region’s sounds, bays, and ocean – they drain glacial runoff from some of the nation’s tallest peaks, provide power to millions of residents, and are linked indelibly to everything from salmon to the eagles and bears that depend on them.

Rivers are also among the most imperiled of ecosystems; as the climate shifts, more and more pressure is being put onto water resources of all kinds.

With this in mind, Western Washington University’s Tammi Laninga and John McLaughlin, faculty members in the university’s Huxley College of the Environment, are co-principle investigators and senior partners in a new $75,000 pilot grant from the National Science Foundation seeking to create a consortium of schools to participate in a new project called the River-based ImmersiVe Education & Research (RiVER) Field Studies Network.

According to Laninga, the RiVER FSN project came about because the NSF recognized that students who are actively engaged in science in the field are more likely to become scientists.

“The grant will allow for the creation of an initial network of institutions all working along similar paths,” Laninga said. “Each of the institutions will have a wide range of interests and specialties, but underlying all of them will be a baseline focus on biology, research, education, and active learning.”

The new program seeks to enhance the quality and capacity of current programs at their institutions and work to overcome barriers of entry for underrepresented populations and students with differing abilities. It will also leverage the resources of individual academic programs and professional partners to begin building more capacity for active learning in river field studies.

Laninga said the goal is to use the pilot grant funds for the establishment of the network, with the hope that they can then have enough in place to apply for a five-year grant from the NSF after it expires.

McLaughlin, who leads Huxley’s immersive Environmental Science Field Camp each spring, said there are simply things that students can only learn by doing them in the field – and that the RiVER FSN project will allow more students the opportunity to participate in the kind of real fieldwork that becomes one of their pinnacle achievements as an undergrad.

“I hear it every year, time and time again,’ he said. “These field experiences are things they remember for the rest of their lives. And by participating in a network, we are learning from our partners – my field courses will be much richer because of our collaborations with our peer groups in the network.”

Taking ideas already learned from the network, McLaughlin is already at work organizing a field course for the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon, during winter break 2020.  

Laninga added that the institutions in the network are working on an agreement that would let students take a field experience course at any of the institutions that are part of the network.

“We have network institutions doing work on the Lower Salmon River in Idaho,  along the Rogue River in Oregon, along the Mississippi … there are so many potential possibilities for our students,” she said.

The idea of for the RiVER Field Studies Network grew out of the River Management Society’s (RMS) River Studies and Leadership Certificate program, a certificate geared at undergraduates at participating institutions who want to gain skills and knowledge in river studies. Western Washington University is one of several participating institutions across the country partnering with RMS to offer the certificate.

Students interested in learning more about the network, the certificate, or the potential for intensive river-studies fieldwork should contact Laninga at

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Thursday, January 30, 2020 - 9:47am