Water connects all elements of Earth's ecosystems, and human activities – biological, economic, and even recreational – change the chemical and biological nature of water. As such, maintaining the quality of water for humans and other organisms is a wicked problem, that is, a complex societal challenge that is impossible to fully solve. Water supports life and is essential for our economy, but everything we do is likely to impact the quality of our water supply in some way. How do we provide for the water-related needs of a growing population, while ensuring an adequate supply of clean water for our neighbors and for future generations? In this module, students will explore the way the complex water-related challenges intertwine natural systems with human activities that provide for our physical health and economic well-being.

Follow-on course-specific exercises can be used to apply learnings from the module to specific disciplines.

Goals of the Module

To begin to understand what makes water quality a "wicked problem," this module explores the Mississippi River Watershed. This vital region in the central United States (U.S.) is really a system of people living in cities, growing food, integrated with the natural environment, an essential player in regional and global trade, and a set of complex societal and environmental challenges that need to be solved. After completing the module, students will be able to:

  1. Locate and describe interactions between human and natural systems.
  2. Diagram key components of a complex system focused on water quality and identify different stakeholder perspectives or interests associated with water use.
  3. Explain how differing power dynamics among stakeholders creates conflict and the potential for social/environmental injustice.

A great fit for courses in:

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