Integrate > Undergraduate Teaching for a Sustainable Future > Infuse Sustainability into Your Course > Water

Teaching about Water

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions at the workshop, Systems, Society, Sustainability and the Geosciences, held in July 2012. Find examples of activities or courses for teaching about water.
One of the goals of the InTeGrate project is to pursue teaching that crosses disciplinary boundaries. Water is perhaps the ideal medium for this exploration. Topics related to water transcend just about all fields of study including the sciences, human health, sociology, economics, history, philosophy and art. Students and faculty alike can benefit from using water as a theme for cross-discipline collaboration.

Where does teaching about water fit into the curriculum?

The subject of water can fit into many types of courses and activities and there are many pathways to introduce water and sustainability themes into a wide range of contexts.

Some examples of interdisciplinary approaches to teaching about water include:

  • Regional focus: local geology, physical geology, cultural context, influence on societal organization, seasonal availability of water sources
  • Water as more than a commodity: our human relation to water, reductive views of water, water as a topic that ties "everything" together, sociopolitical realities, spiritual connections, water and religion, cultural context, "natural" water systems - moving away from focus on human controlled management
  • Philosophical discussions: "value" defined as a utility, beauty, etc.
  • Global-local linkages
  • Economics of water: water-energy nexus; virtual water trade; perception of ground water as never-ending, free commodity
  • Water scarcity: correcting the thinking that water is a closed system, when it is actually a dynamic system with water passing into different parts of the earth system and different parts of the globe
  • Water management: metro-system designs, urbanization, corps of engineers, "flash"iness of urban water systems, recycling of water/water treatment (and cultural attitudes towards recycled water)
  • Modeling flows: STELLA style modeling with stocks and flows in water systems for understanding rates/visualization
  • Water rights: water laws, privatization of water, social justice (national and international), industrial
  • Social change: survival of cultures and communities
  • Blue water/Green water: liquid reserve vs ecologically available (soil/plant)
  • Water quality: agricultural and thermal pollution, "waste" water
  • River deltas: connection of freshwater and saltwater ecosystems


Effective strategies for teaching about water in different disciplines:

Pedagogic possibilities for teaching about water are as dynamic and varied as the medium itself. See the activity collection or course collection for more ideas, such as:

  • Use the local watershed to teach the hydrological cycle as an experienced-based educational opportunity. (example: Service Learning and Local Hydrogeology in the Classroom: An Example from Anchorage, Alaska)
    • Make connections to city governance, city utilities, waste water treatment, urban/suburban/wilderness interfaces.
  • Essay/journaling on personal connections to, and use of water (encourage students to pay attention to their resource use)
  • Field trips: water treatment plants, reservoirs, well fields, waste-water treatment plants, etc.
  • Quantification: water data for data analysis, graphical interpretation, quantitative methods
  • Historical readings: water scarcity, personal/societal mobility, climate variability
    • Case studies
    • Ethnohydrology
  • Project based learning: research, field work, writing, presenting skills (for an example see the capstone project from the course, Hydrotopia: Toward a Hydraulic Society in the American West
  • Case Study Database: collect/write for water topics
    • National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, but water-related cases are scarce as of yet.
    • Water conflicts: historical and modern, upstream/downstream communities, boundary-crossing rivers, Darfur, Ethiopia, water as the new gold, failing states, etc.
  • Campus facilities: water usage monitors (where available) (for example, Campus-Based Learning)
    • cost-benefit analysis in class - water conservation and money saving payback
  • Expose students to "solutions," reserving adequate time for this when planning your course
  • Demonstrate your own example of strong resolve and commitment towards the issue to students
  • Minute-papers, ungraded, for students to express their feelings - perhaps guilt and fatigue - to help them process their changing awareness and personal connections to these very serious issues
  • Service learning: campus as a community lab (see examples of Service Learning Projects)
  • Video documentaries: "Mystery in Alaska" by PBS, "Journey into the History of Water" and "A History of Water, volume I-III" by Terje Tvedt and Terje Oestigaard (video and series of books, respectively)
  • Some recommended books: "Writing On Water" by Rothenburg and Ulvaeus, "When Rivers Run Dry" by Fred Pearce


Opportunities to strengthen teaching about water

  • Water is a model interdisciplinary topic and a great nexus for talking about sustainability across traditional academic divisions. Strengthening these connections will greatly serve our students.
  • Water gives us the freedom to connect to virtually any topic - science, engineering, agriculture, ethics, language, religion, etc. By making these connections we move students away from a reductive, utility-as-value perspective of water, and by proxy, other natural resources.
  • Using local examples of geomorphology, hydrology, human management, etc. can provide experiential learning opportunities and make the issues personal for students.
  • Case studies can help students examine their preconceptions and "place" based assumptions, and can bring students a more regional, national, and even global perspective.
  • Allowing faculty to delve into a topic from a new perspective brings new life to teaching, and can refresh departmental momentum.
  • Because faculty are likely to be teaching outside our usual academic divisions, it is important to find ways to share ideas, such as:
    • increased access to resources outside of the physical and biological sciences
    • connecting potential collaborations
    • creating a database of broad disciplinary activities that could be taught by someone outside of that discipline
    • collecting and linking to "best" examples of online lectures, podcasts, and short videos like TED talks.
  • Consider methods to motivate students and combat students' resistance to "sustainability" topics, particularly in geoscience, where students may be inundated with doom-and-gloom realities of modern environmental systems.
  • Use personal reflection: how do we personally feel about the issues we are teaching, where do we lack confidence and how does that play out in the classroom?