Initial Publication Date: March 15, 2013

Transfering Observations into Reserach: Looking at the Student Perspective

Hayley Joyell Smith, , North Carolina State University at Raleigh

Incorporating environmental justice into a classroom presents a rich opportunity to illustrate how geoscience can solve one of the world's most pressing issues—the availability of fresh water resources. I believe that infusing environmental justice with scientific content may invigorate students to generate solutions and potentially make the world a better place. The topic of environmental justice creates an emotional appeal that not only captures the attention of those students interested in societal issues, but also serves as an incentive to learn the scientific skills necessary for a sustainable future. I came to understand the value of coupling society and science while participating in projects throughout the developing world. These experiences have motivated me to return to school for a Master's program in geoscience education.

By looking through the lens of a researcher observing patterns, as a humanitarian in brainstorming ways to improve the quality of life, and as a teacher finding opportunities to facilitate learning, I have concluded that water is more than just a vital natural resource. Water shapes culture. The humanistic topics surrounding water, such as food, transportation, recreation, and even its role in religious ritual comprise the fabric of life in which all people are threads. However, the typical way in which people understand water systems is deeply rooted in availability and education.

In my experience, the people perceived as victims of environmental injustices do not always identify themselves as such. While interviewing elders along the floodplains of the Yangtze River, I realized that "progress" often leads to negative consequences for those who may not reap the benefits. However, to my surprise, no one spoke negatively about his or her situation. Instead, they shared their expectations for a new way of life away from the tributaries they had fished, bathed in, and revered. Their humble acceptance of the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam Project (that was forcing them to relocate) corrected my preconceived notion that these people would be upset about their situation.

On a separate venture to the Middle East, I found people who were acutely sensitive the topics of freshwater resources and environmental justice. People I spoke with openly referred to water as the precious commodity that determined wealth and power. This became evident by noticing which Jordanian neighborhoods had running water and access to waste disposal and which were dependent on bottled water. Furthermore, meeting third-generation landowners in Palestine who were penalized for drilling drinking water wells illustrated how politics is often a driving force in allocating fresh water. Most recently, I had the privilege to work with marginalized immigrates of Belize and indigenous Mapuche of Chile who taught me the resilience of the human spirit. Despite limited knowledge, technology and resources, there is a drive to improve the quality of life. This is, of course, dependent on the use and management of freshwater resources.

Exposing students to communities in the world that do not have reliable fresh water must be done with the intention to ignite an awareness that human beings share a common experience and that geoscience education is a catalyst for change. As the regional water education coordinator for AmeriCorps in Western North Carolina, I created a teaching tool and curriculum to help facilitate conversation centered around our dependence on fresh water and the urban system that we often take for granted. This interactive physical model, called the UrbanHydro Link moves water through a series of chambers, pumps and valves. The model allows students to discover the connection between natural fresh water resources and the urban water system. From this base knowledge, students are able to interpret the consequences of limited water supply, unmanaged development, or lack of water treatment. Once students are able to discuss the complexity of the system, they could then approach the topic of environmental justice with ideas for solutions. Using a problem-solving approach encouraged students to explore the various facets of a complex system and apply their knowledge with purpose. With this format, the topic of environmental justice became a conduit for connecting geoscience and society.

At this time, I would like to bring my past observations and experiences into an academic realm and develop a thesis that incorporates the integration of society with geoscience education. For a Master's project I am interested in capturing the aspects of the student experience as they are introduced to a curriculum that combines the topics of environmental justice and geoscience. For example, does the integration of societal topics and scientific content influence student's situational interest versus personal interest? Are students more likely to become engaged if scientific concepts are taught within a framework of real-life scenarios involving environmental justice? I believe research on these topics will shed light on students' responses to the integration of environmental justice and geoscience, and therefore aid in the development of future geoscience curricula.

Downloadable version of this essay

Transfering Observations into Reserach: Looking at the Student Perspective (Microsoft Word 30kB Mar15 13)