Exploring sustainability through water cycle connections

Tim Lutz, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Geology and Astronomy
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: June 25, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


During this module students use multiple experiences (reading, video, the outdoors, a survey of their water footprints, writing, and lots of discussion) to examine how life today, in comparison to pre-industrial times, makes our connections to water virtually invisible. Students use the class's water footprint results to find out how agricultural and industrial water uses link us to people distant in both place and time. They weigh the consequences of these invisible connections in creating the lost sense of dependence and responsibility that typifies unsustainability. Students study the variability of water footprints within our class to help identify more sustainable personal choices. They consider the activity of a local watershed association to educate and involve people in improving the quality of local streams as a model of how community action can accomplish what individuals cannot.

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Learning Goals

Key content
- the natural and human-modified operation of the hydrologic cycle within watersheds
- units and conversions for water quantities and rates
- linking of natural cycles in ecosystems and human systems
- graphical representations of data
Key concepts
- sustainability as a state of being that comes from fully realized connections to other people and natural systems
- interlinking and interdependence of earth systems (e.g., hydrologic cycle, carbon cycle, ecosystems) and human systems such as the economy
- footprinting as a representation of resource dependence
Higher-order thinking skills
- critical thinking
- reflection
- data interpretation
- synthesis

Context for Use

This module is used in 32-student sections of an introductory, interdisciplinary course on sustainability at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, a public, comprehensive institution of roughly 14,000 undergraduates. The class meets twice each week for 75 minutes. In the classroom, students are seated in eight discussion groups of four. The module is ideally started just a few weeks into the course but students would already have been exposed to and discussed concepts of sustainability. The module will take 6-7 class periods (2-3 weeks). A mini-fieldtrip to study our campus's watersheds and hydrologic cycle and an on-line line video that features a local watershed association are place specific but comparable resources may be available for other institutions.

Description and Teaching Materials

Class period 1:
A. The water footprint assignment, with link, is posted online and due in one week. Rationale and main points are explained in class.

Water footprint hand out (on-line) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jun25 12)

B. The Odyssey activity (hand out) takes up the remainder of class; requires at least one copy of Aldo Leopold's Odyssey; copies of instructor's concept map for journey of "X". Students have a writing assignment for next class.

Interlinked earth systems: Leopold's Odyssey (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 27kB Jun25 12)
Odyssey concept map (PowerPoint 216kB Jun25 12)

Class period 2:
A. Troubleshoot water footprint assignment.
B. Discussion of Odyssey based on student writing; students hand in after discussion.
C. Use remaining time to prep for outdoor investigation of campus hydrologic cycle and watersheds for next class period.

Class period 3:
A. Water footprint assignments should be received in D2L Dropbox; remind stragglers!
B. Outdoor activity not decribed in detail (because specific to campus) but I include notes for teachers who want to design their own activity.

Teacher\'s guide to an outdoor experience (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 28kB Jun25 12)

Class period 4:
A. Present summary of students' water footprint results; presentation doubles as a study of data graphics and good graphic practice.

B. Slide set provides relevant information for discussion of water embedded in foods and international aspects of water consumption.

Footprint results and discussion slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.8MB Jun25 12)

Class period 5:
A. Continue footprint discussion with a group discussion hand out.

Footprint group discussion handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 28kB Jun25 12)

Class period 6:
A. Continue discussion if fruitful.

B. Exploration of watershed management and citizenship; a video link is provided but this could be adapted for any watershed.

Watershed citizenship handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jun25 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Eighteen years of experience with this course have taught me that a steady focus on sustainability from Day 1is important to gain and maintain students' interest. I use John Ehrenfeld's statement of sustainability because I think I can bring it to bear at any point in the course but you could use any reasonably broad statement of sustainability as your own. A key point is that no one knows how to make a sustainable world for more than 7 billion people; the statement is not to provide Truth but a framework in which teacher and students can put up their own ideas and then compare and discuss them.

Student discussion, in groups and as a whole class, is where most of the teaching and learning happens. If you feel you need more time than I've suggested, go with your gut. In most cases I've provided more discussion questions than are needed. As students respond, you'll get an idea of which ones are leading somewhere and which aren't. I let discussion help set the course agenda when I can; i.e., I might decide to alter the sequence of activities if doing so would follow up on things that were of interest in the discussion.

Gathering student information for the water footprint: I talk with students about this issue and about my commitment to respect their individual privacy. I do not ever reveal personal information except with explicit student permission; students are free to talk about their own data and quite a number do. I use statistical summaries in class.

As presented here, the module focuses mostly on the utilitarian value of water (e.g., as a resource). I might precede or follow this module with an activity on the values of nature (e.g., Lutz & Srogi, 2010) that would encourage more broad thinking about how we value water.

I use D2L to make assignments available to students on line. I use D2L's Drop box functionality to collect their water footprint results so that I can process them quickly.


The main purpose of this course is to give students the experiences, insights and motivation to seek sustainability in their lives and in the world, not to introduce them to new science content (although this happens a lot!). I place strong weight on the experiences: students' attendance and timely participation are key. Written answers to discussion questions, in-class discussion, and student self-evaluations of participation indicate insights and motivation, as do longer writing assignments in other parts of the course. Quizzes, exams, and problem sets are not used.

References and Resources

Ehrenfeld, John, 2008, Sustainability by Design, Yale University Press.

Leopold, Aldo, 1966, "Odyssey" in A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation From Round River, Oxford University Press.

Lutz, Tim & Srogi, LeeAnn, 2010, A values framework for students to develop thoughtful attitudes about citizenship and stewardship: Journal of Geoscience Education 58 (1), 14-20.

Water Footprint Calculator, http://www.waterfootprint.org/index.php?page=cal/WaterFootprintCalculator, accessed 6/25/2012.