Water and Civic Responsibility: An Online Discussion Exercise

Rob Viens, Bellevue College
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This assignment requires students to take what they have learned in a science context and apply it to issues faced by society today. In addition, it familiarizes them with one way to be an active citizen - writing a letter to an elected official. Water makes an excellent tool for learning these skills as (1) there is a personal connection with water, (2) there are many different ways in which water and society interact, (3) water is often the core of social justice issues, and (4) water pollution and scarcity may have a real and significant impact on our students in the coming years.

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Learning Goals

Learning objectives:

  1. Describe basic terminology and processes involved with surface water and groundwater systems;
  2. Explain biogeochemical cycles - in particular the hydrologic cycle and how humans are a part of these cycles;
  3. Demonstrate thinking in longer time scales - lag times, residence times, etc. may delay the impact of changes to cycling;
  4. Apply the precautionary principle;
  5. Demonstrate civic responsibility - how to participate and have a voice in community and societal issues (e.g., how to make your voice heard to elected officials);
  6. Demonstrate critical thinking - how to think of a problem from different points of view.

Context for Use

This exercise is specifically designed for an online geology class (100-level), where independent learning is a expected and there is some time between posts for students to process and respond. (I use Vista Blackboard, but any sort of discussion board "tool" would work.) Typically, the class would be about 30 students, but there is really no upper or lower limit for the assignment to work. I would also expect that the students would have covered the basic concepts around "water" before completing this assignment. I would conduct it over the course of about 2 weeks - the first week, I would have the students read articles and write their "letter". Following that, I would give them 3-7 days to research and respond to the letter of their choice. I would encourage open discussion and further dialog after the last part of the assignment has been completed.

Description and Teaching Materials

  1. Prior to the assignment, students learn about basic geology/hydrology principles of water through lecture, readings, etc.
  2. Students are all required to read the same article on the precautionary principle (see reference)
  3. Students are required to read 2-3 articles on one issue where water and society overlap. They have the choice as to which topic to write about. Examples used here (with readings referenced below) include:
    1. Peak water and water conservation
    2. Impacts of climate change on water
    3. Groundwater pollution
    4. Green River: Flooding and the problems with the Howard Hanson Dam
    5. Duwamish River: The impact of pollution and politics
  4. Based on their readings and knowledge of water, the assignment is to write and post a 1-2 page letter that calls for action on a particular water issue. The letter should consider the following:
    1. At what level is this issue important (local, state, national, international), and based on that, to whom should you write the letter (school board representative, local mayor, state governor, U.S. senator, United Nations representative, etc.)?
    2. Explain the main issue that you would like to get across to this official.
    3. Explain the science behind this issue - what evidence is there to suggest there is a problem here? Make a scientific argument.
    4. Be sure to include a reference to the precautionary principle and how it applies to this situation.
    5. See the links provided with tips on writing to elected officials.
  5. First Deadline:Post letter to the online discussion board - be sure it is written as a letter and clearly states to whom it is addressed to.
  6. After the first deadline, students each pick another post/letter (on a topic other than their own). Without reading the background material on that topic (i.e., not having a lot of background knowledge) they are required to write a 1 page response. This response should be:
    1. Written as if it is coming from the office of the elected official.
    2. Comment on the merit of the letter - Explain how and if it makes a reasonable argument.
    3. Address other factors (society impact, costs, ethics, etc.) that would result from doing things differently.
  7. Second Deadline:Post response online
  8. Students would then be required to post a short counter-response and would be encouraged to redraft the letter and actually send it (for extra credit?).

Below is a list of potential readings for each topic (as of summer 2011). They can easily be substituted.

Precautionary Principle Reading

Topic 1: Peak Water and Water Conservation

Topic 2: Water and Climate Change

  • Elsner, M.M., Cuo, L., Voisin, N., Deems, J.S., Hamlet, A.F., Vano, J.A., Mickelson, K.E., Lee, S., and Lettenmaier, D.P., 2009, Implications of 21st Century Climate change for the Hydrology of Washington State, Chapter 3.1 in The Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment: Evaluating Washington's Future in a Changing Climate, Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. http://cses.washington.edu/db/pdf/wacciach3hydrology644.pdf

Topic 3: Groundwater Pollution

  • Groundwater Shock: The Polluting of the Worlds Major Freshwater Sources, by Payal Sampat (World Watch, January/February 2000)

Topic 4: Green River: Flooding and the problems with the Howard Hanson Dam

Topic 5: Duwamish River: Impacts of Pollution and Politics

Resources for Writing an elected official

Teaching Notes and Tips

This exercise could easily be adapted to a sort of "science and society" discussion from mineral extraction to climate change. Even the specific articles used for the water discussion at the time this exercise was designed could be substituted with more current resources or "hot" water topics.


Assessment will be based on the 2 written "letters" posted to the class discussion board. They will be graded based on:

  1. The correct and accurate use of the "science" of water in making a convincing argument;
  2. The use of the precautionary principle in making a convincing argument;
  3. Thoughtful response which includes reference to non-scientific considerations (cost, impact, etc.)
  4. Overall grammar, spelling, etc;
  5. The providing of full references to resources used for the assignment.

References and Resources

See teaching materials