Alix D. Dowling Fink, Assistant Professor of Biology, and Michelle L. Parry, Associate Professor of Physics, Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia
The Power of Water (POW) is an integrated science course in Longwood University’s general education program that explores basic science concepts, as well as questions of social responsibility and civic engagement, through the following learning units: water as the matrix of life, the global water paradox, water for human life, and the future of the oceans. Science concepts addressed in these units include aspects of environmental science (atmospheric circulation, global climate, and climate change), chemistry (molecules, chemical bonds, intermolecular interactions, and the universal solvent), the biology of disease (disease transmission and human immune function), and population biology (types of population growth, food web dynamics, and conservation).
The course has been revised several times to strengthen the connections between science topics and contemporary civic challenges and to take advantage of notable environmental events, such as the Katrina disaster. Since 2005 students have been required to incorporate science reporting from the New York Times into their regular homework assignments and classroom discussions.
Course Learning Goals for Instructors and Students
Instructor will teach students to:
- Understand the major methods of natural science inquiry Recognize and explain major contributions of science to our cultural heritage
- Understand how natural science has been used to address significant contemporary issues
Relate science to personal and social contexts Become better at making personal and social decisions that are science-related Understand some of the historical development of science Understand the processes of scientific inquiry Learn to ask questions and seek answers that are evidence-based
Additionally, General Education courses at Longwood University will:
- Teach a disciplinary mode of inquiry and provide students with practice in applying inquiry, critical thinking, and problem solving
- Provide examples of how disciplinary knowledge changes through creative applications of the chosen mode of inquiry
- Consider questions of ethical values
- Explore past, current, and future implications of disciplinary knowledge
- Encourage consideration of course content from diverse perspectives
- Provide opportunities for students to increase information literacy through contemporary techniques of gathering, manipulating, and analyzing information and data
- Require at least one substantive written paper, oral report, or course journal and also require students to articulate information or ideas in their own words on tests and exams
- Foster awareness of the common elements among disciplines and the interconnectedness of disciplines
- Provide a rationale as to why knowledge of this discipline is important to the development of an educated citizen
- How The Power of Water Links Biology and Social Issues This universal solvent dissolves disciplinary boundaries, allowing students to explore concepts in nearly any branch of science as well as difficult questions of social responsibility, social justice, and civic life.
- The Course A traditional 4-credit course with lectures, labs and field experiences incorporating extended research and writing projects, this course is specifically designed to engage students as scientists and citizens through research and writing projects, case studies, field trips, peer teaching and links to campus programming. Syllabus is included.
- Evaluating Learning A wide variety of assessment tools to test student knowledge are used in SENCER model courses. Students also assess the course as well as their own learning and report gains in confidence and interest in the topics and content.
- Background and Context Taught for the 7th time in 2007, this course was designed to meet the general education requirement “application of the methods of science to the acquisition of knowledge, and an appreciation of the major contributions of science to our cultural heritage and to the solution of contemporary problems”.
- Resulting Projects and Research The Power of Water has resulted in a number of student presentations that take what students have learned beyond the classroom. Professors have also given presentations on the course itself at a variety of symposia and conferences.
- Related Resources References to materials used in class and other resources are provided.
Linking Biology and Social Issues
How The Power of Water Links Biology and Social Issues
Water is the essential medium that supports and connects all life. This universal solvent dissolves disciplinary boundaries, allowing students to explore concepts in nearly any branch of science as well as difficult questions of social responsibility, social justice, and civic life. The Power of Water (POW) is an integrated science course in our liberal education program that supports our campus mission of citizen leadership and seeks to improve science literacy among our non-science majors by challenging students to think as scientists and to evaluate, as engaged citizens, the role of science in today’s world.
Each semester, the POW course begins with a deceptively simple question: why water? Why have we developed this integrated science course for non-majors around this single molecule? We do not need to look far for justification.
“If the solution for AIDS would be to bring a glass of clean drinking water to everybody in the world, we would not be able to bring that. We have not been able to stop children from dying from simple diarrhea by providing clean drinking water.” (J. Decosas, Regional AIDS Program for West and Central Africa, at the 1996 International AIDS Conference)
“Water and sanitation is one of the primary drivers of public health. …once we can secure access to clean water and to adequate sanitation facilities for all people, irrespective of the difference in their living conditions, a huge battle against all kinds of diseases will be won.” (Dr. L. Jong-wook, former Director-General, World Health Organization)
“As you add them up, the many scenes begin to tell a single story. They tell us that a change is coming-a fundamental change in the way we use, see, and think about water.” (National Geographic, author unknown)
One need not venture deeply into the water context to appreciate water’s relevance to questions of social responsibility, social justice, and civic life. Each year 1.8 million people die from diarrheal diseases, and most of the lost are children under the age of 5.
Each semester, three of the following four units are part of the POW course.
|Basic science concepts addressed||Related civic/social issues|
|Matrix of Life Unit|
|Elements, atoms, molecules, compounds
Unique properties of water
Types of macromolecules
Types of pollutants
|Pollutants in the environment
Poisoning of the arctic
Global circulation of pollutants
|Global Water Paradox Unit|
Water’s anomalous behavior
Patterns of climatic variation
Global climate change
Accessibility of water resources
|Water for Life Unit|
|Domains of life
Types of microorganisms
Other types of infectious agents
Human immune response
|Global disease challenges
|Future of the Oceans Unit|
|Habitats, populations, communities,ecosystems Types of population growth
Density-dependent and density-independent factors
|Declines in global fish stocks
Impacts of human consumption on natural system
A major priority in the design of this course is the engagement of students as scientists and citizens. This is accomplished through the variety of techniques described below.
In order for the POW course to parallel its sister Goal 6 courses, it is taught in a traditional 4-credit lecture-lab course format: students meet for 3 lecture hours and 2 lab hours each week. The physical meeting space is also traditional: lecture meetings take place in a 96-seat auditorium in which all students meet together and smaller lab sections meet in a 24-seat teaching laboratory. Enrollments in the course vary depending on the primary faculty member’s other teaching responsibilities, however all sections offered are usually filled to capacity. Four sections (three 24-student sections and one 15-student honors section) have typically been offered in the fall, and in 2006 the course was added to spring course offerings for the first time.
As a result of the way the course is structured, the lecture meeting brings together all of the lab sections and includes between 60 and 90 students. While not a “large lecture” by large campus standards, it is at the upper end of class sizes on our campus. A variety of techniques are used to make this meeting as student-focused and interactive as possible.
In the first course offering, the Personal Response System (PRS, a.k.a. student “clickers”) was used to engage students in a series of questions spaced throughout the lecture. This provided feedback to students and instructors regarding understanding of the content of the day.
While use of the PRS was discontinued after that first offering, the lecture meetings are still structured around student engagement and learning. Lectures are constructed as a series of conceptual questions followed by content needed to understand and address the questions. Students are active participants in the lecture meetings, not just through responses to the questions, but also through small group work and brief writing assignments. Throughout the course the goal of understanding is emphasized, and, each day, students are presented with several opportunities to assess their own understanding and to clarify issues that are unclear.
The course is structured with 75-minute lecture meetings on Tuesday and Thursday. Each Thursday students are required to come to class with the “Science” section from Tuesday’s New York Times. Working in small groups and as a whole group, articles are discussed based on their relevance to class material, our lives as educated citizens, and pure novelty and interest. These structured discussions are intended to model the “life of the mind” that we hope students will live throughout their lives as curious, educated, learning citizens.
Laboratory activities are varied but largely fall into four categories: research, skill development, field experiences, and case studies. The research project that is designed and set up during lab meetings is described below, as are the case studies related to water privatization and dam projects.
Related to the research project as well as other course goals, lab meetings are used as an opportunity for students to develop, practice, and hopefully master skills related to quantitative techniques (including basic descriptive statistics as well as Geographic Information Systems use), presentation of data (including the development of graphs and figures and understanding the relationships therein), experimental design, and library research. In several semesters students were challenged to design a microhydropower turbine (using materials available through http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/Hydro/hydro.htm) that might be scaled up and used by a rural village to generate modest amounts of electricity. This design challenge required the application of basic concepts from physics and proved to be an engaging problem for student teams. At the end of the design period, turbines from each student team were tested to see which performed the best, and the experience ended with a discussion of a key question: you can build it-but should you?
Field experiences are an important way for students to develop an appreciation of local water resources, and all students in the course visit local waterways and municipal facilities that safeguard water quality. Field trips to two local water treatment facilities not only relate to class discussions of water quality but also provide students with a sense of the community context in which the campus resides (discussed further below). Two additional trips focus on sampling of local waterways, including impacted sites in the town of Farmville, as well as a forested creek in a local state forest. During these trips, students see water quality impacts first hand. Students often cite these trips as a highlight of the course.
E-textWhile the use of a custom e-text is hardly innovative, it does solve a major issue that was encountered in the first offering of the course. As there are few good texts for interdisciplinary science courses and none that fits the needs of this course, a custom etext was developed using McGraw-Hill’s Primis service. The text was built with chapters from a number of different McGraw-Hill books, and it provided students with a much needed reference.
These methodologies are what set the Power of Water course apart from biology courses taught in standard formats. They represent innovative tools for linking biology with real world contexts and civic issues.
While the connections among science topics and social issues come readily to faculty, early feedback indicated that students had difficulty making these connections. The concept map assignment requires students to develop a concept map every two weeks using a user-friendly software program (http://www.inspiration.com/). In developing their maps (samples included in Appendix 1), students must identify the key concepts from class and explicitly make connections among them. Additionally, they must incorporate articles from The New York Times and describe how those news items relate to our work in class. Finally, they must incorporate other connections, such as work from other courses, issues in our local community, etc. While the final map is in itself quite interesting and provides insight into student understanding of the relationships among course topics, it is the process of thinking through the connections that is most beneficial to the students. In fact, this assignment is frequently cited in Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) results as the course activity that helped students learn the most.
Student Created Concept Map
Two films are used to frame case studies on water privatization (Thirst) and dam projects (Drowned Out). Both films clearly relate to basic course content: water resource management, water quality, dams as water control structures, etc. However, they frame that content in its social context. Water resource management is steeped in very difficult questions related to who controls the resource, who has rights to it, who ensures its safety, and who is responsible for delivering it. With respect to the dam issue, the film makes a very simple point: humans can build these structures in the name of nation building and renewable energy. However, the makers of both films go well beyond the simple points by exploring the ways in which we are changing a resource that has been in place for millennia and what costs are borne by the people. What is the cost of the major dam projects? What is the cost of privatizing water resource? Very importantly, how do citizens engage these issues in their own communities? The films include many examples of civic engagement that cross economic and cultural boundaries. Students are shocked to see footage of the Bolivian army turning its weapons on its own people-all over the issue of water privatization. They are then equally surprised to learn the story of Stockton, California, and its citizens’ fight to block sale of its water treatment facilities to a private corporation. Through discussions and an informal writing assignment, students reflect on the relationships of the scientific and social issues as well as parallels between these distant geographic locations and places close to home.
An opportunistic addition in Fall 2006 was an assignment focused on An Inconvenient Truth, a film that a local theater showed at the request of the Longwood faculty. The relationship of the film’s content to the POW unit on global climate is clear, and, in future semesters, this film is likely to return to the course syllabus.
As part of this course, we take field trips to our local drinking water filtration and waste water treatment plants. While this is a very simple activity, with few exceptions students cite it as one of great impact in their understanding of our local water resources and our campus’ impact on them. We are part of a community and our activities on campus affect that community. Students are frequently shocked to learn that the demands on the water and waste water treatment plants double when they return to campus in August. After these trips, students openly discuss their impressions of these facilities (i.e., rather dated and old) and the people who manage them (i.e., dedicated stewards of a critical community service). These trips provide wonderful connections to our case study of privatization of water resources, both in terms of our country’s aging infrastructure for water processing and the role of municipal workers in providing for the public good. Students identify Kathy and Chuck of our local plants with key individuals in the Thirst film, thereby connecting our local context to important national issues.
Student learning can be evaluated via standard assessments such as exams, term papers and quizzes. Student performance is not considered the only method for assessing the success of the Power of Water. The course itself is evaluated by students and instructors in order to determine whether or not it reaches SENCER goals for learning and engagement.
Research and writing projects
A significant part of the POW student experience is a scaffolded series of assignments revolving around a water quality research experiment. To engage students in the practice of science, student teams design experiments to test hypotheses regarding the impacts of water quality changes. The experiments are designed after a discussion of the basics of experimental design (e.g., sample size, replication, etc.).
Identified by students as the “beer cup project,” this effort requires the establishment of simple plant and invertebrate species in plastic drinking cup “microcosms.” The water in those systems is then modified based on the experiment designed by students (within boundaries of safety and greenhouse facility, for the duration of the multi-week experiment.
After developing and carrying out this simple experiment, students spend a lab period “dissecting” a simple scientific paper (taken from Beta Beta Beta’s Bios journal). Students then meet with an instructional librarian to learn about the process of finding appropriate scientific literature. Additionally, a lab period is dedicated to discussion and practice of appropriate quantitative techniques for analyzing and summarizing the results of the experiment.
At that point, students begin to prepare a scientific paper in stages, where each major section is submitted for review by the instructor and two anonymous peer reviewers. This iterative process engages students not only in writing for the discipline but, in the name of practicing science, it also involves students in critically evaluating their own work and the work of their peers. While the finished scientific paper is a notable accomplishment, it is the process of carrying out the research experiment and developing the paper that are most important, and the process does not end there.
The preparation of the finished paper is not the end of the process. Students then employ what they have learned in evaluating two local streams. Equipped with basic water quality sampling equipment, students don waders and immerse themselves in these stream systems and collect important data. These data are processed and students directly apply their experiences in the laboratory experiment to these real-world settings. The end product is not another scientific paper but rather a letter to the Town Manager of our Farmville community. Students draw on their experience as scientific researchers to comment on the “State of the Streams” in which they translate their laboratory experience to the applied question of surface water quality. Finally, student teams synthesize their views and present a team presentation to their peers in the final laboratory meeting. While students are repeatedly reminded of the caveats of a one-time visit to a local waterway, they are also reminded of the process: this is a means of engaging their local officials as scientifically educated citizens.
Exams and quizzes
The course is structured with a series of “Major Quizzes” in addition to mid-term and final exams. Major quizzes are given about every other week, and they have several important goals: 1) to provide students and the instructor with frequent feedback regarding their learning, their ability to synthesize material, and their progress in making connections both among course content and between science and civic issues, 2) to provide students with regular incentives to keep current with course material, and 3) to provide multiple assessment opportunities to build up to the higher stakes mid-term and final exams, which is particularly important because the quizzes and exams require students to do more than just regurgitate content and thus practice is critical.
The comprehensive final exam focuses on broad themes that reappear throughout the course and as such it provides students with multiple opportunities to link science concepts to important civic issues. Additionally, a take-home question due at the final exam period requires students to read a provocative scientific article (“Can the world afford to save the lives of 6 million children each year?”; The Lancet 365:2193-2200) and develop a letter to the editor of their hometown newspaper. In the letter they are required to incorporate important results of the analysis presented in the article and frame it in such a way that it will make sense to the average reader. Additionally, they must comment on the social and civic issues as they relate to people in their hometowns. The products of that exercise are fascinating and provide evidence that most students can make sense of the scientific and quantitative information in the article but have difficulty merging that with the realities of cultural, social, and economic constraints. That struggle is typical of “complex citizenship” and provides interesting closure to the semester.
The course uses the SENCER Student Assessment of Learning Gains instrument. Pre- and post-SALG results from the spring 2006 course showed gains in confidence and interest in the topics and content that were commensurate with SALG results from other SENCER courses.
Background and Context
Alix D. Dowling Fink, Assistant Professor of Biology, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, email@example.com, Phone: 434-395-2576 and
Michelle L. Parry, Associate Professor of Physics,Department of Chemistry and Physics Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: 434-395-2579
The Power of Water course will be in its 7th iteration in Fall 2007. In the first two offerings (Fall 2003 and Fall 2004) the course was team-taught by two SENCER team members, a biologist (A. Fink) and a physicist (M. Parry). That first course offering was exceptionally difficult for the faculty and arguably for the students as well. In the team’s effort to develop the course, we discussed the option of offering a pilot course as a special topics offering. Had we gone that route and not proposed the course formally, it probably would never have been offered again after the challenging and disappointing first round. However, it was in the catalog and the primary instructors, while bruised, remained committed.
The course was dramatically revised for the second offering (Fall 2004). Significant time and effort were invested in reorganizing the course to make the connections among science topics and between science and civic topics more clear. The course was organized around several of water’s important properties, providing students with a clear road map for the term. Formal and informal student feedback were significantly more positive.
The course was dramatically revised again for the third offering (Fall 2005). The course was taught by a single instructor (A. Fink), as it has been since that time. This round focused on major thematic units (the global water paradox, water as a limiting factor, and water for life) and drew significantly from world events, most notably the Katrina disaster. The fourth offering (Spring 2006) was slightly modified from its immediate predecessor, retaining the major unit structure and topics. In both 2005-2006 academic year course offerings, students were required to purchase The New York Times and incorporate it into regular homework assignments.
In the Fall 2006 version of the course, it retained much of the content, assignments, and vision of the 2005-2006 offerings, but it was reorganized slightly to exploit an interesting opportunity. The 25 August 2006 issue of Science focused on freshwater resources. In order to more rigorously engage students in reading and understanding the primary scientific literature, student lab fees were used to purchase one copy of the issue for each student in the course. The unit structure from the previous year was redrawn somewhat to line up with the major articles from the issue.
While the evolution of the course continues, it has become the responsibility of one faculty member rather than the entire SENCER team. Though the team structure still existed on paper, until recently it was in practice no longer functional. This was in no way a result of a lack of interest or dedication but rather was a product of teaching commitments to other service courses. However, a reorganized team will return to the SSI in August 2007 to develop a strategy for increasing our SENCER course offerings.
What is the role of the “Power of Water” in undergraduate curriculum at Longwood University?
Longwood University has a 15-goal General Education program that engages students from their first semester (Goal 1: freshman seminar) to their senior year (Goal 14: advanced “writing for citizenship” seminar) and includes traditional on-campus coursework (Goals 1-14) as well as a required internship or research experience (Goal 15). One goal is focused on the natural sciences: “Goal 6: The application of the methods of science to the acquisition of knowledge, and an appreciation of the major contributions of science to our cultural heritage and to the solution of contemporary problems (four credits).
Goal 6 is the responsibility of the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Chemistry and Physics. These two departments offer six course options to students seeking to complete this goal requirement:
- BIOL 101 Biological Concepts and Applications
CHEM 101 General Chemistry
EASC 210 Physical Geology
PHYS 101 General Physics
GNED 162 Introduction to Environmental Science (new, Fall 2006)
GNED 261 Exploring Science in Our World
GNED 261 was added to the Longwood undergraduate curriculum as the direct result of our SENCER team’s participation in the 2002 SENCER Summer Institute (SSI). Our team of 5 faculty members (two chemists, one biologist, one physicist, and one science education specialist) and one administrator returned from the SSI with a clear goal: to develop a new and unique Goal 6 course and propose it for addition to the curriculum for the 2003-2004 academic year. The product of those efforts was Exploring Science in Our World, which is described in our undergraduate catalog as “an interdisciplinary science course designed to involve students in learning science concepts related to world problems and studying issues important to our local community.”
In developing the course, we sought to have a rather general course title and description so that specific course “bylines” could be added each term to identify the focal topic for the semester. The campus politics associated with the changing byline proved to be quite interesting, though the course proposal successfully passed four levels of curriculum committees and was approved by the Faculty Senate. We agreed that “The Power of Water” would be the first byline for GNED 261 due to the depth and breadth of science and civic issues offered by the water topic as well as its potential to engage a wide range of science faculty.
From Fall 2003 to Fall 2006, POW was the only topic offered under the GNED 261 course heading. In the winter intersession (January) of 2007, we offered “Ecology in Context” as a new topic for a GNED 261 course taught in Venezuela. As part of our campus’ participation in the national American Democracy Project, a second iteration of “Ecology in Context” is in development to be taught in Yellowstone National Park in the Summer 2008. Additionally, in the fall term of 2007, we will offer a new GNED 261 byline focused on medical geography.
While a guiding value of the Longwood General Education program is that students should select goal courses that fit their interests, it is worth noting that POW is a recommended Goal 6 course for our Liberal Studies majors. Our Liberal Studies major is the largest on campus (approximately 800 students in any given year), and it is the course of study for our students seeking teaching licensure for grades kindergarten through eighth. While the current POW offerings can not accommodate each of these students, a sizable portion of our graduating pre-service teachers have completed this course.
The Power of Water: Funding Sources
Internal Funding through Longwood University
General Education Program
Provided funding for attendance of a water-related conference to present instructors with new perspectives on emerging water issues:
American Water Resources Association’s International Congress on Watershed Management for Water Supply Systems, New York, New York, June/July 2003.
Longwood University Innovative Projects for Enhancing Student Learning ($5,000).
- PIs: M. Parry and A. Fink. Developing a lifeline-preparation of topic-focused course materials to support science content and civic engagement in an innovative interdisciplinary science course. (For Spring/Summer 2004)
Longwood University College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Fund for Scholarship Excellence ($7,400)
- PI: A. Fink. Excellence and innovation in undergraduate science education: using SENCER as a catalyst for change. (For Spring/Summer 2007)
- Various activities related to our campus SENCER project have been supported through limited funding and in-kind support from the Department of Natural Sciences; College of Arts and Sciences; Fund for Student Research, Internships, and Public History; and Honors Program.
SENCER support – initial funds to start our campus SENCER initiative, additional funds to support travel
Applied for but not funded (December 2003 submission deadline)
- National Science Foundation CCLI-A&I ($107,889). PIs: A. Fink and M. Parry. Project title: Seeing the big picture-engaging faculty and students through development of an interdisciplinary, team-taught, topic-driven science curriculum. (For 2004-2006)
Resulting Projects and Research
Many SENCER courses result in further educational and professional development projects.
Presentations of undergraduate research related to this course
- Poore,R. Burton,J., Shaw, K., Taylor, B., and Martin, S. (2005, April).Impacts of peer educators on student learning and attitudes in an interdisciplinary science course. National Conference for Undergraduate Research, Lexington, Virginia.
A variation of the above presentation was also made on campus at the College of Arts and Sciences’ biannual student research and internship “Showcase” event. A third edition was presented in November 2006 at the National Collegiate Honors Council’s annual conference in Philadelphia.
Presentations related to the development of this course
- Parry, M. L., & Fink, A. D. (2004, January). The Power of Water: an interdisciplinary approach to exploring science in our world. SENCER Symposium IV, Washington, D.C.
- Parry, M. L., & Fink, A. D. (2004, April) Citizens doing science, students using technology. General Education Showcacase presentation to the Longwood faculty, Farmville, VA.
- Fink, A. D., and Parry, M.L. (2004, August). Zero to SENCER in one year: development of an applied interdisciplinary science course. In Pedagogies of engagement: New designs for learning in and across the disciplines.Conference of the AAC&U Network for Academic Renewal, Chicago, IL.
- Fink, A. D., & Parry, M.L. (2004, August). Water as a meaningful context for learning science: adapting and implementing the SENCER model on the Longwood campus. Poster presentation. SENCER Summer Institute, Santa Clara, CA.
- Fink, A. D., and Parry, M.L. (2004, August). Zero to SENCER in one year or less: development of an applied interdisciplinary science course for first-year students. Oral presesentation. SENCER Summer Institute, Santa Clara, CA.
Below you will find related news articles, bibliographies, web sites and SENCER documents related to the Power of Water
Below are resources from SENCER documents and publications related to the Power of Water Course
Reinventing Myself as a Professor: The Catalytic Role of SENCER by Terry McGuire (PDF)
Why Should You Care about Biological Diversity? by Eleanor J. Sterling, Nora Bynum, Ian Harrison, Melina Laverty, Sacha Spector, and Elizabeth Johnson (PDF)
Ektina, E. and Mestre, J.P. 2004. Implications of Learning Research for Teaching Science to Non-Science Majors, 1-26.
SENCER E-Newsletter articles on Implementation
Goldey, E. 2004. 9 Steps to Designing a SENCER Model in About an Hour, November 2004
Institutions Invited to Attend SSI 2007, April 2007
Three New SENCER Model Courses Address Sustainability, Resources, and the Local Environment, July 2007, p. 4-5.(PDF)
SSI 2007 Participants Work to Improve Education for All Students, September 2007, p. 5-6.(PDF)