About the Program

The Bonneville Dam spanning the Columbia River.

Rivers provide food and clean water, transportation pathways, energy production, travel corridors for organisms, and cultural and spiritual values for people. Despite their importance, many river systems are highly contaminated with toxics, sediment, nutrients, and metals. Contamination originates from many sources, including industrial activity, pesticide runoff, wastewater treatment discharges, and urban runoff. In many places, this contamination is considered an invisible water crisis posing serious risks for wildlife and human health. As this crisis escalates in watersheds and communities it becomes important to train a new workforce capable of integrating scientific information, public policy, and the knowledge and concerns of affected social groups, including Native American tribes.

Focusing on the Columbia River Basin (CRB), this traineeship program teaches graduate students from across the United States how to study challenges in rivers, watersheds, and communities as they relate to human and ecosystem health. Central to the traineeship is the development of a community engagement approach, which begins with the recognition that communities face diverse and complex issues and leverages local knowledge to identify key problems or implement equitable solutions. Students participating in this program will engage with communities to co-produce solutions and opportunities to the invisible water crisis through scientific training, research, and problem-solving.

This program will integrate the natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and traditional knowledges to develop a transdisciplinary research program in river-watershed-community (RWC) systems that ultimately produces equitable solutions to pressing, societal problems experienced by diverse communities. Program activities are focused on two education and training objectives: (1) to effect a cultural shift in graduate STEM education by embracing transdisciplinary learning and the co-production of science through community engagement, and (2) to transform our STEM graduate training into a student-centered mentoring model. Education and research themes address basic and applied questions related to water quality and landscape dynamics of river systems, to anthropogenic changes in the environment that affect ecosystem health, and to equitable mitigation of the cultural, economic, or health consequences experienced by communities. The traineeship program gives students the flexibility to pursue individualized research paths and provides hands-on training experiences to build skills and competencies in communication, teamwork, ethics, cultural knowledge, traditional knowledges, transdisciplinarity, and quantitative/computational research methods. Program elements weave engagement experiences throughout the student experience in the form of novel courses, leadership training, and the development of a CRB Living Atlas focused on data integration and visualization, and multi-media communication. The student-centered mentoring model includes a trainee development plan, external mentoring, and faculty development. Program elements will be institutionalized in the form of the Community Engagement in River and Watershed Systems (RWC) Certificate available to all STEM students.