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Students Document Legacy of Lake Norman Online

Davidson’s Brad Johnson points out features on an old map of the Lake Norman area to an assembled group
Davidson professor Brad Johnson points out features on an old map of the Lake Norman area to (seated) colleagues Jan Blodgett and David Martin, and (standing) Duke Energy district manager Tim Gause and Steven Jester, Duke Energy vice president of water strategy, hydro licensing and lake services.

Environmental studies majors in the Class of 2014 made their mark on Davidson, leaving a digital impression intended to educate the public about the ecology, economy and history of Lake Norman. Funded through a grant from the Duke Energy Foundation, the Davidson College Lake Norman Project (DCLNP) commemorates the lake's 50th anniversary by displaying online student research projects on topics ranging from the lake's fishing industry to the real estate climate.

Lake Norman, the largest manmade lake in the Carolinas, was created in 1964 when Duke Energy built a hydroelectric dam on the nearby Catawba River. As buildings and roads vanished underwater and backyards suddenly turned into shoreline, Lake Norman transformed the local community.

The anniversary prompted college archivist Jan Blodgett to think about cataloguing the history of this prominent environmental feature. At the same time, Duke Energy officials approached her about creating an online educational resource for the public.

"The creation of Lake Norman changed the landscape of the region both literally and figuratively," said Tim Gause, Duke Energy district manager. "It was and continues to be a catalyst for growth and vitality. We certainly appreciate the need to preserve its colorful history."

Blodgett subsequently collaborated with Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Brad Johnson and Professor of Economics David Martin to conceive the DCLNP as an assignment for environmental studies majors.

Johnson said this project also comes at an important phase in the lake's history. "We are right at the point of losing the people who still remember what this area was like before Lake Norman. It's important to hear the stories of these people so that they can be preserved," he explained.

"The tremendous growth of the area in the last 20 years has prompted a lot of questions about what the area used to be like, and what lies under the lake," Johnson continued. "Making that information easily accessible is very beneficial to the community."

Projects completed by environmental studies students for the DCLNP include studies and historical research on:

  • Development and regulations of the Lake Norman shoreline
  • Socioeconomic impact of Lake Norman on the development of the Griffith Street area in Davidson
  • History of commercial fishing in Lake Norman and changes in fish species
  • Evolution of the Davidson College Lake Campus
  • Flood of 1916 and Lake Norman as flood control
  • Changes in town demographics around Lake Norman
  • Evolution of environmental non-profit agencies and social action
  • Rise of luxury real-estate and lakeside communities

Community & Curriculum

The project may eventually employ a summer student or postgraduate intern to convert the website into modules that local school teachers can use to teach their students about the lake. The group also has been working with the Charlotte Teachers Institute to create programming using the student projects. 

Environmental Studies majors next year will continue research for the DCLNP website. In following years, the senior environmental studies majors may either continue to update the website, or move on to another collaborative, interdisciplinary project.

Regardless, Johnson said that the student collaboration prompted by the DCLNP was beneficial to environmental studies majors.

Environmental studies is a new department at Davidson, and the senior majors who participated in the DCLNP were the first to graduate since the department became independent in 2012. To complete their degree, environmental studies majors must take one of three tracks of coursework-natural sciences, social sciences or humanities-while completing coursework in the other tracks. Students also complete a mandatory capstone project in their focus track.

"We let environmental studies majors work across college departments and literally all over the world to complete their major," Johnson explained. "Finally, we pull them all back together for the capstone course, where they complete an interdisciplinary group project. In this instance, it was the Lake Norman Project."

Johnson added, "Having a major from the social sciences track and another from the humanities track work together on a project that is in neither of their specialties results in a valuable union of differing perspectives."

Rewarding Opportunity

"Before this project, I basically knew nothing about Lake Norman," said Rebecca McKee '14. "I had only learned and experienced it through the college's Lake Campus."

McKee's group researched local environmental nonprofit organizations and social activism concerning the lake and its history. "I was surprised to learn that the lake was created without public protests or community involvement in the decision making process," she said. "That's something you wouldn't see in today's political climate."

McKee said the community has become increasingly more involved with the lake through the years. "We were able to search newspaper archives and see how surrounding towns became concerned about issues like shortages of landfill space and pollution in the lake," she said. "We also saw how those issues were handled by environmental action organizations."

McKee said the most rewarding aspect of her group's project was the interest it generated in the local community. "We presented our project to the Davidson Historical Society, and they seemed intrigued," she said. "They asked thoughtful questions and supplemented our discoveries with personal anecdotes. It was nice to see the public express interest like that."

Johnson said the project will provide a long-lasting benefit to the community. "The internet needs more quality research like that in the Davidson College Lake Norman Project," he said. "It provides easy access and quality information for those who want to know more about the local community."