CLEMSON — The night watchman first noticed the river rising about 3 a.m. An hour later, it was a torrent. By the time the flood subsided, dozens were dead. Survivors found a church — still intact — 35 miles downstream.

The Pacolet River Flood of 1903 left behind unprecedented disaster in the South Carolina Piedmont. More than a century later, it also produced an unmatched model for schoolchildren studying practical applications of math and science guided by Clemson University.

Students at Spartanburg County's George Washington Carver Junior High School this spring took up the case of the Pacolet River Flood in a project created for STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — education.

It is among schools in seven South Carolina school districts that partnered with Clemson's College of Engineering and Science this year to find new ways to teach math and science for a generation of students entering an increasingly technological workplace. The other districts are Greenville, Orangeburg 3 and 4, Marion 7, Chester and Sumter.

The Carver students' “STEMtastic Flood Museum” used math, science, history and English classes to recreate the Spartanburg County of their ancestors — including a working model of the Pacolet River and the structures it swept away in the catastrophe 108 years ago.

“The collaboration by all the faculty members was amazing,” said Glenda Pepin, a Clemson University math lecturer who helped coordinate the project. “Art, music, photography, culinary arts, physical education, health, language arts, foreign languages, history — everyone found a standard from their discipline that supported the science, technology, engineering and math standards to connect STEM concepts across the curriculum.”

“The core problem is that our education and training systems were built for another era,” said Dot Moss, who directs Clemson's Professional Development for Integrated Inquiry program for teachers. “We can get where we must go only by changing the system itself.”

Pepin was sharing ideas with the Carver faculty when she recalled a STEM project elsewhere that had used the 1889 Johnstown Flood as a theme. “That's when the lightning bolt struck and the Pacolet River Flood became our project,” she said.

The famous flood, now part of Spartanburg County lore, was well known to locals at Carver. The school itself is only a few miles from the streams and rivers that swelled on June 6, 1903.

What The New York Times called a “cloudburst” at the foot of the Blue Ridge erupted into a 40-foot flood that swept away much of the community of Pacolet Mills, devastating the once-thriving manufacturing area. The flood burst through dams, destroyed bridges and carried away warehouses filled with thousands of bales of cotton and cloth. Every bridge on Southern Railway's main line in the county was reported washed away.

“The STEMtastic Flood Museum was a perfect connection to our school’s emphasis on community,” said Carver Principal RaaShad Fitzpatrick. “Helping students better understand the history of Spartanburg County using STEM concepts as the motivation was a great experience for our teachers and students. Our students now understand the tremendous impact that a natural disaster can have on a community.”

The project also allowed students and teachers to weave what they studied across the curriculum along a single thread. English students wrote poetry commemorating the catastrophe. Math students designed exhibits on the geometry used in early 20th century architecture. History students described life in the mill villages of the period, including exhibits on the baseball teams mills fielded for their employees.

The most elaborate project: a scale model of the flood itself, built to simulate the force of the flowing water, complete with mill buildings washing away.

“The Pacolet River simulation unit performed beyond my wildest imagination,” said teacher Robert Browning, whose industrial technology classes created a table exhibit of the flood. “My students experienced the production of the model from its initial conception, through the design phase, to the completed manufacture. I was very pleased observing students' reactions to the flood.”

For Clemson's Moss, the project is another means to help teachers inspire students to learn how math and science affect their lives.

“Now more than ever we need a community of committed educators to prepare our children for the realities of the next generation,” she said. “With Professional Development for Integrated Inquiry, we observe classrooms and provide feedback, provide model lessons, work with grade-level teams in STEM best practices and conduct workshops. We try to understand the culture of the district so that we can better serve the teachers and students. In connecting STEM disciplines across all subjects, Carver's project is an excellent model.”


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