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Going with the flow

By Catherine Monson '12
February 16, 2012

St. Olaf seniors (from left) Laurel Ohm, Lauren Snyder, Matthew Kamrath, Benjamin Simmons, and Evan Doucett show the river model they used to measure flow and sediment build-up using powerful software developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Hydrologic Engineering Center's River Analysis System. The more detail they put into it, the more detail they got from their models.

What do the Cannon River, a bowl of cereal, and emergency rooms have in common? They all can be analyzed using applied mathematical models, which is what 16 St. Olaf mathematics majors did during the Mathematics Practicum course in January.

During the college’s one-month Interim period, three groups of students tackled substantial math problems posed by area organizations. The students essentially did the work of a paid consulting firm, working at least 40 hours per week under minimal faculty supervision.

The course, which has been offered every January for the past 30 years, varies in the types of organizations involved, but usually works with a mix of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and local establishments. This year’s projects included a major food company taking a closer look at fiber intake among American children, emergency room utilization for a health plan, and — in Northfield — gathering data on sediment flow and other flooding factors in the Cannon River in order to shed light on the river’s impact on the community. This third project is part of the ongoing Cannon River Modeling Initiative, a partnership between St. Olaf, Carleton, and the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation (NDDC).


"The issue of working locally has always been important," says Professor of Mathematics Matthew Richey, who taught the course with Associate Professor of Statistics Paul Roback '89. "We try very hard to find a problem in town that will impact the community." 

The massive flooding in September 2011 is well remembered by Northfielders. Nonetheless, says Richey, there is not a detailed understanding of the "what-if" scenario: "What if we had a tremendous rainfall again?" he asks. One of the goals of the Cannon River Modeling project is to determine how the river will look in the future by analyzing variables such as flood potential, impact on public safety, bank stability, sediment toxicity, and invasive species concerns. To do this, the team of five students built preliminary models of the river and evaluated the capabilities of modeling software. They also viewed aerial photographs from the past 50 years to see how the river's flow has changed due to sediment buildup.  


Knowing that the results of her studies will be used in future assessments of the river was great motivation for group member Lauren Snyder '12. "The river is a major part of Northfield's history, and it is important that we raise awareness of the river and its effects on our community,” she says.

The students' work in Northfield is an outcome of the NDDC's College-Community Collaboration Committee established in 2010 to get students meaningfully involved in the community during their undergraduate years. It also can prepare them for potential entrepreneurial work, says NDDC Executive Director Ross Currier.

More than math
Snyder says she was pleasantly surprised by how interdisciplinary the project was and how much it relied on the entire community. In addition to sharing the project with Carleton students, their work involved dozens of community members who specialize in geology, biology, river flow, and other areas. And it even required getting their hands dirty. "At one point we went down to the river with ice picks and buckets in hand to get some sediment samples," Snyder says. "It definitely isn't what I had expected from a math project."

With ice picks and buckets in hand, the St. Olaf crew went down to the river to get some sediment samples. "It definitely isn't what I had expected from a math project, but it has been a lot of fun," says Lauren Snyder '12. "Knowing that the results of our studies are directly relevant to our community and will be used in future assessments of the river is a great source of motivation and it keeps the project interesting."

Each group's work culminated in an hour-long presentation at the end of January in which they presented their findings to their client organizations, offering recommendations based on research. In addition to gaining real-world experience, there is strong potential for the final presentations to lead to jobs. Roback is always optimistic about students' success, both in the course and after graduation. "In every case that I've known, the students have had something valuable to present their clients, and oftentimes the clients are kind of astounded at what 'some college kids' could come up with," he says. (Case in point: "The St. Olaf Math Practicum students' presentation was amazing," tweeted Currier after the students wrapped up their work while also noting their impressive "graphic cross-sections of the Cannon and topological modeling of the valley.")

In the meantime, however, the junior and senior math majors were simply glad to be doing math that finally answers the question: Why does this matter?

Says Richey of the benefit for both students and their partner organizations: "It's a win-win situation, and it's great when it impacts the local community."

This story first appeared in St. Olaf's hard-copy Posten newsletter that is mailed to Northfield-area residents and businesses.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or