December 18, 2014

Tis the season to learn about water

Student projects lead the way

Even though is has been quite a few years since I stepped foot on a middle school campus, I have to admit, a shudder ran up my spine (memories of my own adolescent awkwardness) while waiting outside the classroom door.  I was there to meet with Katherine Van Treese and her sixth grade Social Studies students at Redwood Middle School in Napa, California.  My role was to kick-off their first real project-based learning experience for the school year.  The project’s driving questions were: How does the challenge of securing the essential resource of water impact lives locally & globally? How can we, as responsible citizens, inform our community members about the complex challenge of water scarcity & the dangers of water waste?

Early in 2014, I started volunteering for Napa Learns, a non-profit organization providing resources, tools, and experts to facilitate project-based learning (PBL), and serving on the board of the Napa County Watershed Information Center and Conservancy (WICC).  PBL is an educational strategy that starts with identifying real-life problems, enabling students with technology, and connecting with facilitators and subject matter experts.  Teams of students work collaboratively on real-world, question-driven projects. PBL encourages the “Four C’s”– critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.  These organizations connected me to Katherine, who provided the opportunity to talk with the  students and seek their help in educating California citizens about the complex and global challenge of water scarcity.

Despite my initial jitters, interacting with the students was a blast.  They provided me questions ahead of time ranging from personal to technical: When did you decide on your career path? Where have you traveled? What is something you have done to help someone in need of clean water? And a variety of questions about the purpose and function of the Napa County WICC board and about water science and management.

This project provided a unique opportunity for students to identify, research, and communicate about a water issue relevant to their community. It was designed to show students how to research and deeply understand an issue and then present it in an interesting way. In addition to my classroom visit, students had a video chat with Joy Eldredge from the City of Napa Water Department.  As deliverables, project teams were asked to create two products.  Students submitted letters to the Napa Register to raise awareness about how water impacts the social, cultural, and economic decisions of a community.  They also created infographics to share publicly on the CBI blog (see below)!  

As a starting point, students read a book called A Long Walk to Water about water issues in Sudan (which connects to their social studies learning about ancient civilizations - specifically the ancient Egyptians and ancient Kush).  The book provided a global piece that Katherine found successful because it helped the students “to see a different perspective in general, but through an issue that is so close to them.”  Beyond that Katherine says “it's really about getting them to think about their environment and how the choices they make every day can have an affect on the way they live now and the future.”  

Water emerged as a powerful topic, which Katherine threaded through social studies and language arts with this project.  Based on this year’s outcomes, she plans to use water as a focal topic in the coming years.  It has proven to be a very timely addition to her curriculum, as recent research indicates that the current dry spell in California is the most severe the area has experienced in at least 1,200 years.

Reflecting on the experience, Katherine said, “To be honest, the students surprise me every day. When one group said they wanted to focus on fracking I was shocked, but excited! It was so cool to see these teams discover and uncover interests on their own. I had another group focusing on desalination, which was also interesting. They were able to see that the process has both pros and cons (which is reflected in their infographic). I really loved to see the control they all took over their own learning.”

As you scroll through the 12 infographics below (see arrows on sides), prepare for your jaw to drop! Watching the process of project-based learning and - seeing first hand that we can create authentic learning experiences that give students opportunities to engage in their communities - fills me with boundless holiday cheer!

Please contact me ( if you are a teacher and are interested in collaborating with CBI on a conservation related project.


About the author:
Tosha Comendant, Ph.D.
Senior Conservation Scientist, Team Lead- Planning & Management
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