STEM Freshmen Learn their Lesson at Old Hickory Dam

By Lee Roberts, Army Corp of Engineers, Nashville District Public Affairs  


More than 20 ninth graders from Stratford STEM Magnet High School received educational lessons about water management on the Cumberland River and its tributaries, ecosystems for big rivers and small streams, hydropower operations, navigation and water safety on a field trip today at Old Hickory Dam.

A team of scientists and park rangers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District split the students into two groups, then toured the Old Hickory Navigation Lock and provided insight into Corps missions inside the Cumberland River Operations Center.

Bob Sneed, Nashville District Water Management Section chief, talked about the development of the modern-day reservoir system to include the background and purposes of the 10 dam projects that the district built and continues to maintain and operate.  He explained to them the various purposes of the projects, which include flood risk reduction, hydropower, navigation, water quality and storage, and recreation.


Richard Tippit, the lead biologist for the Water Management Section, also shared his expertise about the environment and water quality, the data collection program, and how the district applies it.  He also talked about the effects of the environment on the aquatic wildlife and the importance of keeping waterways clean.

The students, who have taken on a project to conduct tests in Cooper Creek near their school, were very interested in water quality testing because they are working on a project to collect data on the physical, chemical and biological properties in the creek.

Responding to questions, Tippit said high pH, which is a measure of the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution, indicates a lot of nutrients or a lot of algae.  “If it’s really low, it means there’s some sort of acid coming into the water,” he explained.

Perry Bruce, a graduate of Stratford who works for the Nashville District and works on stream gauging that provides critical data necessary to operate the reservoir system, was on hand to talk with students and share his experiences from the school to higher education and ultimately to his professional work with the Corps.

Park Rangers Courtney Eason and Amy Redmond escorted the two groups to the navigation lock and also shared their knowledge of Old Hickory Lake and the hydropower and navigation missions at the dam. They also shared water safety tips and the differences between the various types of life jackets available that are U.S. Coast Guard approved.


Old Hickory Lake is part of the Nashville District system of 10 lakes that span the 700-mile-long Cumberland River and includes 300 miles of navigable waters, Redmond told the students.

“Between Old Hickory Dam, here where we are standing, and going up to Cordell Hull Dam… that’s basically Old Hickory Lake,” Redmond said.  “There’s 97.3 miles of water, and on both sides of Old Hickory there are 440 miles of shoreline. There is about 22,500 surface acres of water on Old Hickory with a normal pool level, which is 445 feet above mean sea level.”

Eason talked about the importance of navigation on the Cumberland River and shared how in the early days of America it didn’t take long for people to realize they could make money using the rivers to transport commerce.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped up to survey the nation’s waterways and to devise plans to make them navigable, she said.

“The Corps of Engineers built some locks so that we could have recreational and commercial boat travel up and down the river,” Eason said.  She explained the importance of moving goods and services on the water and said the payload on a 15-barge tow on the river is the equivalent to a three-mile-long train or a 35-mile-long line of tractor trailers on the highway.


When the students walked up to Old Hickory Lock, they were treated to a six-barge tow that entered into the lock on its way downstream on the Cumberland River.

“It’s really fun learning how all this works and seeing this,” said Hailey Potter, a student who watched the barges go through the lock.

Kathy Lee, an instructional designer with Stratford STEM Magnet High School Freshmen Academy, said every nine weeks the freshmen students are introduced into different pathways they could go into when entering the tenth grade.

“This pathway is interdisciplinary science and research and engineering, so we’re looking at the aspects here at the dam that are related to engineering and scientific research, Lee explained. Lee said the project they are working on that puts together engineering and scientific research is a study of the water quality of Cooper Creek, which is part of the watershed of the school.


“So the students are here becoming informed about our watershed, and our Cooper Creek of course flows into the Cumberland River.  And of course, the Corps of Engineers is managing the flood management and the navigation and the water quality,” Lee said.  “So we’re here to find out what real engineers and real scientists do, because that’s really what we’re trying to do is develop a real-world application and project for the students.”

At the conclusion of the visit, Carol Haynes, Nashville District’s chief of Equal Employment and Opportunity, spoke to the kids about the importance of obtaining STEM skills and talked about the many career opportunities that are available in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Water Management Education Series is an online resource that students and the public in general can explore to learn more about how the Cumberland River Reservoir System works.

The Nashville District supports STEM programs and is an official partner of the Stratford STEM Magnet High School. For more information, go to the district’s STEM Support Page. For more news and information, follow the district on Facebook at