Dordt College News

Water, water everywhere

August 21, 2012

Interdisciplinary campus project aims to get students thinking creatively and critically

What’s come to be known as the “water project” on campus began as a conversation among faculty in the natural sciences about how to increase student engagement with what they were learning.

Guest speaker for The Water Project.

As I’ve taught, I’ve seen that institutions can interfere with learning,” says Dr. Jeff Ploegstra, one of Dordt’s biology professors. “By defining subject areas so specifically, we lose opportunities for creative thinking.” Ploegstra believes that to shape culture we need to define how we think about issues, not just accept others’ ways of defining them. That means looking at them in the interconnected and complex way God made the world.

“The most interesting conversations and issues often happen at the interface between disciplines,” adds Dr. Nathan Tintle, who teaches statistics and often collaborates with people in other disciplines for his work. Yet educational institutions have not been very successful at breaking down disciplinary boundaries, he says. If they are, it usually happens in upper level courses.

“We’re introducing interdisciplinary learning earlier,” says Tintle.

The faculty members leading the interdisciplinary water project are thinking big: they hope to help change the way students learn and change how they think about learning. They want what goes on in the classroom to spill out into the world in which they and their students live. Currently, 25 professors and nearly 500 students are involved in some aspect of the project.

“The ‘water project’ has shown me that even first- and second-world countries can lack clean, safe drinking water. It has given me the chance to help creatively solve a real world problem with no ‘correct’ or known solution,” says Katie Tazelaar, a first-year biology major.

“Learning happens best when you’re solving real problems,” says Dr. Darren Stoub, a chemistry professor. And problems are always complex multi-faceted affairs that require creativity, critical thinking, and analytical skills.

After looking at several problems facing today’s world, a coordinating team of seven Dordt College faculty members settled on peoples’ need for safe and sustainable water. At least 880 million people lack access to clean water today; 10,000 people die every day—most of them children—due to lack of clean water. Professors and students in 17 departments will focus on aspects of the growing problem of safe and accessible water as it relates to their disciplines.

To kick off the semester’s work, Environmental and Water Resources Engineer Tim Dekker, a vice president and senior manager at LimnoTech, addressed students, professors, and community members on September 17. Dekker, who has taught environmental engineering at the University of Michigan and lectured at Harvard Graduate School of Design, is known world-wide for his expertise on water-related issues. Michigan-based LimnoTech is one of the country’s leading water sciences and environmental engineering consulting firms and has been involved with almost every major water issue in the last 30 years.

In his talk, Dekker pointed to factors that contribute to today’s water resource problems. He concluded by saying that despite the fact that a lot of very smart people are working on water problems, he believed people in the audience could make significant contributions to both the conversation and solutions to water-related problems.]\

“This is a pretty hot issue for me as a Christian with a background in Reformed theology,” he said. He pointed to the “conceptual model” God lays out in Genesis for his people’s role as caretakers in creation, a creation that is “very good” and in which everything works together to support and sustain generations of people, a creation that flourishes when we take seriously the relationship between God and his people, people with each other, and people with the creatures and things around them.

“That picture will make you better equipped to solve water resource problems than many very smart people,” he said, adding, “It’s not just a handy philosophy of life, but something that needs to drive our work.” Genesis 1, he believes, helps us understand what real sustainability is: God gives the “seeds” to sustain life for generations to come. Rebirth is built in. Our job is to work out our understanding of how God intended the creation to be.

A series of three films were also shown during the month of September, adding context to conversations on water. “Blue Gold: World Water Wars” demonstrates how civilizations have collapsed because of poor management of water. “Flow: For Love of Water” highlights the rapidly building water crisis. “Tapped” asks whether water is a basic human right and whether it should be owned and sold.

Students in two dozen courses then began looking at what it takes for all people to have safe and sustainable water, what hinders this from happening, and what some possible solutions to lack of access to clean water might be.

“We’re not rewriting course syllabi,” says Stoub. In most courses, issues connected with water might be the subject of a paper or a project that might otherwise have focused on something else—papers or projects related to history, English, social work, or education. 

All students participating in the project were asked to write a response paper to Dekker’s lecture andStudents gather in their groups to collaborate on different ways to solve the water problem propose a solution to some aspect of the water problem in a particular global context. Students were then assigned to a group of four people from different disciplines where they shared their ideas, refined them, and decided to research one solution. The groups will present their results at a November dessert/poster session. After the poster session students will evaluate other students’ ideas in a final report.

By having students from a variety of disciplines thinking about, talking about, and researching the same topic during the same semester, professors hope to heighten awareness and understanding of the issue, create a more dynamic learning environment, and encourage them to become engaged with and help solve problems the world is facing.

“I am really excited about the water project!” says Senior Nursing Major Lindsay Hannink. “I enjoy how the project is bringing people of different disciplines and backgrounds together. As a nurse, I am bringing the healthcare perspective to the table as I draw from experiences and research that I have done for other classes. Last year I studied the effects of cholera on the body, and we were convicted by statistics that stated that about every 15 seconds a child dies of a preventable water-related illness. While studying water, we are finding ways to examine how we use water in our daily lives and how it affects people and environments not only at home but also around the world. Dordt is providing a fantastic opportunity for students to gather around an important issue and consider real-world solutions to an extensive and complex problem.” 

“This is how problems get solved in the real world,” says Stoub.

Faculty members leading the project believe that Dordt College is a good place to do interdisciplinary work. Dordt’s comprehensive and biblical worldview sees the world as an interconnected whole, created by a sovereign God who holds it all together. That context, which lies at the heart of both Dordt’s curricular program and its reason for existence, also gives a foundation for getting at problems and finding solutions. Understanding complexity can make learning more involved but also more interesting. And offers possibilities for solutions that might be missed by taking a more narrow approach and understanding of the world.

“At Dordt, we have enough people with a similar belief system to work productively and passionately together,” says Tintle. And the collegiality of Dordt’s relatively small faculty encourages and simplifies working across disciplinary lines.

“It still takes work to make it happen, but it makes it very possible,” adds Tintle.

That attention to an educational vision and interdisciplinary emphasis is what pulled History Professor Dr. Paul Fessler into a project that at first sounded like a technical, science-oriented project. As he went to meetings and learned more about the goals, he realized not only that this is what should be happening at Dordt College, but also that his historical perspective and scholarly experience could play a valuable role. As a historian he wouldn’t just add another knowledge base to the mix, but he could help both professors and students see that people in the humanities, for example, might approach problems differently from those in the natural sciences.

“We have something unique to offer our students because of our integral approach. That’s not just jargon,” he says.

Fessler sees concrete evidence of the value of such interaction in his own experience. He maintains close contact with college friends who entered a variety of different professions.

“When we sit and talk—engineers, doctors, historians—everyone agrees that we don’t use the technical skills we learned quite as much as we thought we would. Our cultural, religious, and technical backgrounds allow us to talk more easily to a wide range of people, engage a wide range of ideas in meaningful ways, and draw better conclusions,” Fessler says.

The “water project” has demanded a great deal of time from seven faculty coordinators this semester, but they expect that projects on other topics will be able to draw extensively on the framework they’ve set up this semester. Students, too, are having to work hard, some more willingly than others.

“I know some people find the project to be extra work, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore a problem that affects so many people in such different ways. We all have something to contribute, whether we know it or not, and it is a great way to think about my discipline (plant science) in a different context. I’m learning a lot about the correlations between food, energy, climate, economy, and humanity and the impact they have on water security,” says Lillie Koerner, a sophomore agriculture major.

In the end, although most people on campus know it as the “water project,” it isn’t really about water—or at least it is and it isn’t. It’s really about a process and a way to learn. Professors hope that students will get involved in conversations that would not have happened otherwise. They’ll assess the effort at the end of semester to learn how and what students learned to determine whether they’ll repeat the project with a different problem.


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