Cailin Huyck Orr, Washington State University

Currently I am teaching in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and most of my students are Environmental Science majors, both graduate students and undergraduates. My students have chosen this major most often because they have an interest in conservation or management of natural resources or a vague notion that they want to do something for the environment when they finish school. My goal for teaching is to give them tools to do that effectively, without discouraging this inclination. But the environmental problems that are timely right now are complex and will require creative interdisciplinary approaches to solve. Many of these issues are also confounded by uncertainty and/or lack of data.

For example: Central Washington is an area of arid land farming where water is held in reservoirs following snow-melt and used, along with groundwater, to irrigate through the summer months. Climate forcing is changing the amount and timing of available water. Downstream water users, for example hydropower dam operators and cold water fish, are impacted by both climate variability and upstream users' choices. In turn, upstream producers are responding to changes in global commodity prices, fuel prices, their own preferences and their need to meet water use requirements to maintain their water rights, as well as future uncertainty. Predicting something that might seem simple at the start, like about how much water there might be in the Snake River during fall salmon spawning runs in 2030, quickly becomes very complex. Another example is the conceptual diagram for the WSU IGERT NSPIRE program shown below.

Teaching students to understand this complexity and then be able to start teasing it apart without throwing up their hands can be difficult. I want my students to be able to figure out the level of complexity they need to work with to address the question (science or management) they are interested in. I would also like them to be able to be able to understand and embrace uncertainty and move forward without perfect information. And finally, I would like to be able to teach about both natural heterogeneity within a system (such as periodic flooding in a river) and non-linear behavior (tipping points or alternate stable states) in a way that students can apply these concepts appropriately.

Orr essay figure
Figure from: WSU Nitrogen Systems: Policy-oriented integrated research and Education (NSPIRE).

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