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University of Dayton Rivers Institute students publish a children's book as senior capstone project

By Allison Brace ’22

The 2020 cohort of University of Dayton River Stewards created a children’s book, Into the River, to inspire children’s literacy and educate local youth about the importance of rivers in the greater Dayton area.

Written for the third-grade reading level, the picture book takes readers on a colorful journey through the Great Miami River, adjacent to the University campus. Sixteen senior River Stewards wrote, illustrated and designed the book, which incorporates local landmarks, fundamental watershed education and native species. It was published April 22, in conjunction with the Brother Joseph W. Stander Symposium, the University’s annual celebration of academic excellence.

“I see this book as a great way for students to 'take home' their education," said Rachel Carr, a political science major from Centerville, Ohio. "We hope that the story transforms general scientific concepts into local, meaningful and memorable stories. Children are powerful influencers in the community and can help our mission of stewardship. Their education and involvement in these issues is vital to our whole community."

The flagship program of the Rivers Institute administered by the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community, River Stewards is a three-year interdisciplinary program focused on leadership development and civic engagement, based on the model of learn, lead and serve. River Stewards participate in weekly mini-courses, provide service to the community and work together to develop a capstone project during their senior year.

This year's project stands out because it still can be shared with the community long after the students graduate, said Leslie King, Rivers Institute director.

At the start of their junior year, River Stewards begin to look deeper into environmental challenges within the community while examining the organizations and assets working toward addressing them.

Dayton has a limited number of books that are socially inclusive for its young students, classifying the area as a “book desert.” By looking at literacy rate statistics in the Dayton area and meeting with Project Read, students concluded that literacy rates in Dayton are comparatively low and wanted to take this opportunity to make a difference.

“A book desert is classified as a place that does not have enough books for students in the area, and the books that are present are not culturally relevant or socially inclusive,” said Noel Michel, graphic design lead and mechanical engineering major from Columbus, Ohio. “We wanted to create a STEM book that any child in Dayton could relate to and possibly be inspired to explore and care for their river.”

The students broke themselves down into committees that focused on various aspects of the book, including finance, graphic design, communication and programming. This system showed the students’ ability to constantly reevaluate and change their ideas based on feedback.

“I was really impressed with the students’ ability to be adaptive and include everyone's input,” King said.

The illustrations were completed by students in the program with feedback from children in the community through workshops run by the programming committee.

“We basically did a lot of arts and crafts during this process and figured we wanted a really colorful, collage-style book that followed a child’s fantastical dream in the local waterways,” said Natalie Merline, communication lead, an environmental biology major from St. Louis.

The hope is that Into the River will inspire more people to write books about their local rivers and aquifers to emphasize the importance of a place-based education. The River Stewards also hope to promote the core mission of the Rivers Institute that the river is a place for all to come together.

Originally, the students planned to roll out the book with a two-week event at the Dayton Metro Library. However, that event was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the River Stewards presented their work to the University community during this year’s virtual Stander Symposium. They also conducted a live reading on the Rivers Institute Instagram page immediately following the symposium.

With the help of community partners the City of Dayton Water Department and Division of Environmental Management, the Miami Conservancy District and Five Rivers MetroParks, the River Stewards printed 2,400 copies of Into the River to distribute throughout Dayton and neighboring communities. The group also hopes to distribute several hundred books to the City of Dayton Water Festival participant teachers, local libraries, elementary schools.

An online, flip book version Into the River can be found on the University’s eCommons website, with additional activities and coloring pages about the rivers and watershed that can be printed for children.

In its 15 years, the Rivers Institute has had a strong impact on the students it serves, while helping bring awareness to Dayton’s large river system. Through its partners and relationship with the greater Dayton community, the Rivers Institute helps bring students hands-on learning experiences while improving their leadership skills.

“River Stewards gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned in my sustainability, energy, and the environment (SEE) minor and additional hands-on learning opportunities,” Carr said. “Through program connections and the Honors Program, I was able to extend that learning further through an internship with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice.”

For more information about the Rivers Stewards program, visit the River Stewards website.

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