Water Optimism - focusing on solutions for the hydrosphere in a take-home final exam

Laura Guertin (guertin@psu.edu), Penn State Brandywine

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This take-home final exam asks students to demonstrate their improved skills in searching for sources (information literacy) and writing on freshwater science/society/policy intersections (science literacy), and author an essay themed on Water Optimism.

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This assignment was developed for and implemented in an introductory-level Earth science course (Water: Science and Society, EARTH 111 at The Pennsylvania State University) for non-STEM majors, focusing on water behavior and occurrence, its relevance to life, human activities, politics, and society. There are no prerequisites for the course, and the course satisfies the university's general education requirements for natural sciences and United States cultures.

This course requires students to purchase the book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman (New York: Free Press, 2011) ISBN: 978-1-4391-0208-4. However, this book or any required textbook is necessary for this final exam assignment.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students will have just completed a 15-week semester that engaged students in classroom exercises and hands-on activities exploring freshwater science and the connections to society and policy. During the second week of the semester, the students would have received instruction from a faculty librarian on the information cycle and how to search and evaluate science courses for currency, reliability/relevance, authority/audience, and purpose/point of view (see IF I APPLY checklist - the CRAP test could also be used). Students will have been assigned each week of the semester to find an article relating to water from a specific source (one week from Yale Environment 360, another week from Ensia (Water), etc.). Students generate annotations for each article throughout the semester to build their abilities to find relevant articles, to briefly summarize the content in their own words, and to analyze/evaluate the writing and structure of the article itself, its appropriateness for using in the course, etc.

With a foundation in science and information literacies, the students are prepared for this final assignment.

How the activity is situated in the course

This assignment is designed as a take-home final exam. The instructions are handed out during the final class period and reviewed with students so that they may ask clarifying questions. The exam is then due during the following week during the final exam period and submitted online via the course management system (e.g., Canvas).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

This take-home final exam brings students back to connecting with the overarching course goal and one of the secondary course objectives.

Overarching Course Goal -- Students will be able to summarize the individual components and analyze the integrated contributions (natural environment, human activities, and policy) that define the complexities of Earth's hydrosphere, focusing on freshwater systems

One of the Secondary Course Objectives -- Articulate scientific and societal arguments for why water matters, including a self-reflection on your own attitudes and beliefs.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Specific goals for the students include:

  • Writing skills development - To learn how to write about water science, specifically focusing on not the problems but the solutions.
  • Critical thinking and research skills - To apply what they have learned from the semester-long weekly annotation assignments - how to evaluate sources and how to critically analyze and determine how well an article covers a topic. In the case for this take-home final exam, students are not told which sources they are to retrieve their content - the students must determine the sources and articles for themselves.

Other skills goals for this activity

In addition to demonstrating how to search the internet for appropriate sources and responding to the required writing prompts, students show an understanding of how to use in-text citations and to generate a reference list in APA format. It is also hoped that as students complete the course, they leave with a positive outlook on solutions for science instead of focusing on the problems and challenges.

Description and Teaching Materials

The content in the take-home final exam handout is included here and as an attachment with the supporting materials.

Let's go back and take another look at our Overarching Course Goal

Overarching Course Goal -- Students will be able to summarize the individual components and analyze the integrated contributions (natural environment, human activities, and policy) that define the complexities of Earth's hydrosphere, focusing on freshwater systems

And one of our Secondary Course Objectives

- Articulate scientific and societal arguments for why water matters, including a self-reflection on your own attitudes and beliefs

This semester, we've covered some of the fundamentals of water science. We've explored water events and issues that have occurred in recent years with our current event news stories we've placed in Google Earth. We've learned more about scientists and their work, and the role they play in helping us understand and advance water science. We've discussed communities and populations that have been impacted in ways that are not always equal.

We've learned about challenges in the hydrosphere and explored some of the solutions to those challenges. I want this final exam to focus even more on the solutions – on what we'll call "Water Optimism."

What do I mean by Water Optimism? We certainly cannot deny the natural and the human-caused challenges to water and within our water systems, but we also must recognize that the biosphere (specifically the anthrosphere part) is able to adapt to these changing conditions and be resilient. We look at the challenges yet work towards solutions for the benefit of our environment and for society.

This final exam is your opportunity to show that you understand the scope of what you have learned throughout the semester. You will be able to think about which topics you made a strong personal connection to and how science/scientists and society connect to those topics. This writing assignment allows you to communicate the what, the why, and the how – all based in opinion validated by cited work from credible, reliable sources.

Step One for this final exam is to find 3 articles from the past 5 years that address solutions to water challenges. These cannot be articles you used in your weekly article annotations – you can use any of the sources listed on our course LibGuide to find your articles, but the articles must be new ones you haven't read before. Make sure the articles are not opinion pieces and stand up to the credibility review that the faculty librarian showed us when we did the IF I APPLY test. You will use these three new articles and your textbook as the foundation for your final exam – but you can still incorporate other information you learned this semester.

Step Two is to write an 800-1,000 word essay on Water Optimism. These are the components to include in your essay (do not answer these as individual questions – write this as an essay, with paragraphs):

  • Why it is necessary to have hope as it relates to the Earth system of the hydrosphere? (especially freshwater) Comment why we need water and its uses.
  • What are some examples of what scientists study as it relates to water? And what do scientists do with this water knowledge?
  • What are some solutions being put in place (or planned) for solving some of the challenges in our freshwater systems? (*this is where your three n ew articles come in)
  • Your textbook states that overall, one of the most important "sources" of water is conservation – for individuals, households, businesses and corporations, cities, etc. Discuss the concept of water conservation for these various groups.
  • What gives you hope that we can achieve/maintain a clean and sustainable water system? (so what gives you Water Optimism)

Step Three is to include an APA-formatted Reference list at the end of your essay of the three new articles you just found in Step One and any additional sources you may have used, like your textbook.

Step Four is to submit by the deadline listed at the beginning of this document – and that's it! (well, that's it for EARTH 111, but not for our hydrosphere, of course....)

Handout for take-home final exam on Water Optimism (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 20kB Apr23 21)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Having given this exam in the Water: Science and Society course as well as adopting the theme/topic to other earth science courses (such as coastal optimism for an oceanography course), the students perform very well in not only making sure the instructions are followed (correct number of sources, addressing the required writing prompts), but also applying what they have learned and why it matters through a lens of optimism.

The part that is consistently surprising is that, despite there being a Library Guide for the course that the students used throughout the semester to find articles for their weekly annotations (a requirement), the majority of students did not use the recommended sources on the LibGuide but searched for sources on their own. Many students did successfully demonstrate the ability to apply their new information literacy skills, finding good articles that pass the CRAP/IF I APPLY test; however, some students did not use sources that were appropriate for a college-level science course.


Students were provided the following rubric in the handout with the final exam instructions. This Likert scale allowed for the instructor to easily apply this scoring to the content written in the exam.

Grading outline for final exam
Everyone will start out with a score of "3" in each category. From there I will determine if the response is not up to college-level expectations or lacking information and a complete thought (can be lowered down to a 1 or 0), or if you greatly exceed expectations and did a really thorough job that "knocked my socks off" (up to a 5).

  • A clear description of the "what" and "why" of water optimism
  • A clear description of scientists studying water/sharing
  • A clear description of water solutions/conservation
  • A clear description of what gives you water optimism
  • Included at least 3 citations, correct APA format, quality sources

Total exam grade is based out of 25 points.

The final exam is worth 10% of the final grade in the course.

References and Resources

Information literacy resources

CRAP test used in this course is available on Penn State ScholarSphere and was adapted from Keene Info Lit Bank's CRAP worksheet. and is discussed further on AGU Blogs - GeoEd Trek, Help students evaluate sources with the CRAP test (February 24, 2016).

Phillips, K., Roles, E., Thomas, S. (2019). Navigating the Information Ecosystem: Getting Personal with Source Evaluation, IF I APPLY. LOEX 2019. https://doi.org/10.26207/9z0c-7955 (modification of IF I APPLY used in this course available on Penn State ScholarSphere).