Water is a critical component supporting all life on Earth. It is interrelated with every human activity, such as agriculture, power generation, industrial production, mining, public and domestic supply, human health, education, and culture. Between 1900 and 2010, global water use increased by a six-fold factor; and, with population growth, economic development, and changes in consumption patterns, it continues to increase at a rate of 1% per year (Aquastat, n.d. in UNESCO & UN Water, 2020). In conjunction with climate change, this adds increasing pressure on both the quantity and quality of surface and groundwater resources (UNESCO & UN Water, 2020; IPCC, 2021). Furthermore, with human populations rapidly expanding, tensions around water resource access and use are likely to intensify. As a result, the world faces many socio-hydrologic issues (SHIs) that are complex in nature and involve both scientific and non-scientific dimensions. Efforts to conserve and effectively manage Earth’s water resources require decision-making based on scientific evidence, as well as social, economic, and policy considerations to ensure water security within complex socio-hydrological systems. Teaching and learning about water in an array of contexts, including undergraduate classrooms, is therefore pivotal to help future water researchers, practitioners, and global citizens develop water literacy, which involves hydrologic knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors, to enable sustainable water management practices (King et al., 2012; McCarroll & Hamann, 2020; Su et al., 2011).
Despite evidence of the value of water and its importance across different STEM disciplines (King et al., 2012), research has found that there are many challenges to cultivating water literacy through education. At the undergraduate level, students may have inaccurate or incomplete understandings about water, the water cycle, or water systems (Arthurs & Elwonger, 2018; Attari et al., 2017; Cardak, 2009; Sibley et al., 2007), which can persist into adulthood (Duda et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2009) and need opportunities to develop understanding of environmental principles within a framework that foregrounds coupled human-natural systems (King et al., 2012). Many innovative educational strategies have been applied to improve or enhance undergraduate water education, including technological approaches (Habib et al., 2012; Li & Liu, 2003; Williams et al., 2009), developing and evaluating content material (White et al., 2017), and creating interdisciplinary courses (Willermet et al., 2013). While these studies highlight positive impacts of these approaches on undergraduate water education, they also illustrate persistent challenges in supporting undergraduate students’ learning about water and development of water literacy.
To contribute to these broader efforts, we have developed, offered, and evaluated the undergraduate Water in Society course at a large midwestern university since 2017. Water in Society is a 3-credit hour, introductory, interdisciplinary course offered to students from STEM and non-STEM majors that has served over n = 326 students in the past five years. The course has a dual focus on students 1) developing understanding of introductory-level core hydrologic concepts and 2) using that knowledge to analyze, reason, and make decisions about water-related issues. In an earlier publication, we described the origins and initial design of the course (Forbes et al., 2018). Since then, the course has maintained a consistent focus on a core set of innovative research-based practices to support students’ learning and engagement with authentic data, scientific models and modeling, and the use of evidence to make informed decisions about SHIs. However, there have also been changes to the course over time, particularly a shift from a more traditional, instructor-driven course to a hybrid, flipped, and more student-centered course design; and, most recently, to a fully online and asynchronous course in response to COVID-19. Since 2017, we have extensively studied these aspects of the course as it has evolved (Lally et al., 2020; Lally & Forbes., 2019, 2020; Owens et al., 2020; White & Forbes, 2021), contributing to the broader body of research on undergraduate water education. Collectively, these studies have provided insight into the use of modeling and visualization tools to help students reason about hydrologic concepts and engage in decision-making about SHIs, as well as how the design of the course can support these outcomes. These studies build upon and contribute to insights from our broader body of research on undergraduate water education (Petitt & Forbes, 2019; Sabel et al., 2017).
Despite this multi-year discipline-based research effort, we have not yet conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the course outcomes. While prior studies have focused on specific course elements within one or two years, they have not sought to account for a broader range of outcomes across all five years as the course has evolved, or how these outcomes may have been impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The present study aims to provide a systematized account of the five years of the course, in which we evaluate how students’ outcomes and perceptions have changed over five years, including the spring 2020 and 2021 semesters, in which the COVID-19 crisis necessitated a shift to virtual learning. It provides evidence about undergraduate water education from an interdisciplinary and holistic perspective, efforts to continue improving the course, and informs other education researchers and practitioners about strategies that could be used to improve the design of courses related with water resources. The research question guiding this study is, “how have the students’ outcomes and perceptions changed over five years of the course?”.
Undergraduate water education
Teaching and learning about water remain an important priority within undergraduate education. Among hydrologists, for example, there has been a growing recognition of the need for innovative educational approaches to prepare the next generation of water scientists (Wagener et al., 2012). This has led to a growing body of work illustrating innovative approaches in undergraduate water science courses (Habib et al., 2012; Halvorson & Westcoat, 2002; Kingston et al., 2012; Li & Liu, 2003; Smith et al., 2006; Thompson et al., 2012). In addition, there is an emphasis on cultivating water literacy among the population to support science-based water-related decision-making (Attari et al., 2017; Covitt et al., 2009; Johnson & Courter, 2020; King et al., 2012; McCarroll & Hamann, 2020; Su et al., 2011). As King et al. (2012) observe, “Appreciating that the subject matter of hydrology is embedded in a larger context of causes and effects, which includes human decision-making and generates complex system behaviors, is a primary step in reframing hydrology education” (pg. 4025). In this sense, addressing the complexity of water-related challenges, requires that students from STEM and Non-STEM majors to develop an understanding about different natural and human dimensions of water. Within this context, some work has explored interdisciplinary courses for both STEM majors (including those in water sciences) and non-majors (Covitt et al., 2009; Forbes et al., 2018; Smith et al., 2006; Willermet et al., 2013; Williams et al., 2009). All of these efforts share a commitment to the idea that individuals must learn to apply disciplinary knowledge to the social, economic, legal, and political dimensions of water-related issues, or water literacy.
However, research has shown that water literacy in the United States remains underdeveloped. Students across the K-16 continuum, including undergraduate students, demonstrate an array of scientifically inaccurate conceptions about water and water systems (Arthurs & Elwonger, 2018; Attari et al., 2017; Cardak, 2009; Covitt et al., 2009; Halvorson & Westcoat, 2002; Sibley et al., 2007). For example, students may not fully grasp water vapor as a component of air (Cardak, 2009; Sibley et al., 2007), groundwater stocks and flows (Arthurs & Elwonger, 2018; Cardak, 2009), the relation between the built environment and water (Attari et al., 2017; Covitt et al., 2009), and interactions between natural and human dimensions of complex water systems (Halvorson & Westcoat, 2002). Prior research documents also observed that many commonly observed ideas students articulate (i.e., groundwater existing as underground reservoirs, evaporation occurring only from large bodies of surface water, the impact of Earth’s oceans on weather and climate, and the vast amount of Earth’s freshwater used for agricultural production), often underemphasize less-directly-observable components of water systems, such as soil moisture, groundwater, and water vapor, in their reasoning about hydrologic stocks and flows. Some evidence suggests these alternative ideas may carry over into adulthood (Duda et al., 2005). Collectively, while these findings highlight many characteristics of water and water systems that learners do grasp, they also identify specific areas in which water literacy can be enhanced, including through undergraduate education.
Reform-based, model-centric undergraduate teaching and learning
To support their learning about water and development of water literacy, undergraduate students should use computational, simulation-based models in classroom settings which, when combined with other pedagogical approaches, can support learners to develop a more comprehensive understanding of hydrology (AghaKouchak et al., 2013; Habib et al., 2012; Merwade & Ruddell, 2012). Models are an important tool with which to support students’ learning about complex systems, including water. Modeling helps students engage with otherwise inaccessible phenomena and develop skills, including explaining ideas, making connections between the real world and scientific concepts, evaluation of models and ideas, and metacognitive processes. While scientific models can take a variety of forms (visual representations, physical models, computer simulations, analogies, etc.) (Lally & Forbes, 2019; Merwade & Ruddell, 2012), here we focus on data-driven, computer-based computational models for water systems, tools commonly used by hydrologists. With these models at their disposal, students can explore multiple hypotheses, develop policies, and quickly run multiple scenarios involving hydrologic phenomena and socio-hydrologic systems (Gunn et al., 2002; Williams et al., 2009; Zigic & Lemckert, 2007).
Enhancing undergraduate water education using models, simulations, and visualizations harnesses the benefits of reform-based instruction, including active learning, to interact with authentic data for complex analysis and decision-making (AghaKouchak et al., 2013; Attari et al., 2017; Gunn et al., 2002; King et al., 2012; Lally & Forbes, 2019, 2020; Merwade & Ruddell, 2012; Sibley et al., 2007; Zigic & Lemckert, 2007). Effective, model-centric instructional strategies align with best practices in undergraduate STEM instruction (Handelsman et al., 2004) and innovative teaching strategies to positively affect student outcomes (Gunn et al., 2002). Effective teaching and learning in STEM disciplines has evolved from traditional approaches that prioritize one-directional information transmission through instructor-led lectures and ‘canned’ activities with stringent, pre-determined outcomes. Instead, contemporary perspectives emphasize active learning, a process in which instructors and students co-participate in higher order thinking and co-create knowledge and meaning (Handelsman et al., 2004). Prior research has demonstrated the positive impact of reform-based pedagogy and active learning in undergraduate courses. Active learning involves an array of alternative classroom structures, including small and large group discussions, problem solving, practicing, questioning, and feedback, through which students, create, analyze, and evaluate evidence and knowledge claims for natural phenomena (Habib et al., 2012; Halvorson & Westcoat, 2002; Kingston et al., 2012; Li & Liu, 2003; Smith et al., 2006; Thompson et al., 2012; White et al., 2017; Willermet et al., 2013). This compelling evidence underlies current emphases on use of active learning strategies and principles of effective STEM instruction in undergraduate STEM courses.