The Center for a Sustainable Water Future was created in 2018 to fulfill three main goals: research and scholarship, civic engagement and outreach, and curriculum. Through the introduction of a new, co-taught class, the center is satisfying its curriculum goal and offering a holistic view of water’s roles across society.
“From economics to food systems, to public health, policy, engineering, and technology—water is everywhere. This class helps students understand the centrality of water in their lives and their future,” said Dr. Joan Brehm, a professor in and the chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
“Thirsty Society: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Water” integrates information from the natural and social sciences to create a unified understanding of the societal roles of water. Brehm, who is also the co-director of the Center for a Sustainable Water Future, is teaching the 100-level course alongside Dr. Eric Peterson, University Professor in the Department of Geography, Geology, and the Environment and coordinator of the hydrogeology program.
Planning for the course and the incorporation of the dual-professor model began a year and a half before the pair began co-teaching in spring 2021.
“Solving the problems of water requires an understanding of everything from the science of water quality all the way through to the policy impacts and social implications,” Brehm said. “We had to do some convincing, but I’m very grateful for the fact that we had support from department chairs and college deans that saw the value in this kind of approach.”
Both professors are present during class sessions. In lectures and discussions, Brehm covers the social-science content, touching on topics like public policy and access and equity, while Peterson handles the natural science side, focusing on water quality and the impacts of weather and climate.
“We also work to integrate small group discussions so students can sit back and think about what we’ve talked about,” Peterson said. “Whether or not the discussions get really deep, that’s not necessarily a requirement as much as thinking and talking about class topics and being engaged. That’s where curiosity gets built and where they start to see some of the real-world connections.”
“I’ve never been a big science guy, but it’s been really interesting to hear both sides of the story,” Frederick said. “If you’re not really interested in the science part, you still get a little taste of what the social part looks like, and if you’re not really a social science person and you just want natural science, it’s there as well.”
Frederick’s enrollment in the course motivated him to add the water sustainability minor.
Demonstration and application are the core focuses of the professors’ teaching efforts. At the end of the course, students conduct an investigative study of a current water issue in society. Working to identify and solve a problem provides an opportunity to put all the information learned over the course of the semester to use.
As the class continues to evolve, the pair hopes to utilize other resources to make class sessions interactive.
“One of our future goals would be to add some field experiences to the class,” Brehm said. “Where we could actually take the students and go out and look at Sugar Creek and do some assessment of water quality, or maybe go to the water treatment facility at the south end of town and talk about what’s happening there. Getting at least a couple of field experiences into this class will really help elevate the understanding for students and the application of this content.”
As their second semester teaching the course comes to a close, Peterson and Brehm are able to reflect on what their teaching style and the course content can do for their students.
“Students are all coming in with a concern with the environment,” Peterson said. “They may not totally understand how everything is related, but they have a strong passion for environmental studies and how they can improve the environment. They want to make the world a better place and, ideally, they’re getting a better understanding of how that can happen through this course.”