In hopes that your children or grandchildren will be doing school projects later this year, for the next few weeks I will devote this space to project-based learning and some ideas for projects.
Project-based learning has significant benefits. First of all, students become producers of knowledge, not mere consumers of information that others decree they must know. They own what they learn, and they reap the satisfaction of possessing expertise. Moreover, they develop (or sharpen) a skill the adult workplace values: the ability to work with others.
The best projects meet these five criteria:
1) The topic is of interest to whoever’s adopting it;
2) The issue is significant, not trivial;
3) The project follows ‘The Goldilocks Rule.’ Neither huge and grandiose (“Solving the Middle East crisis”) nor tiny and trivial (“Comparing the rate of growth of avocado pits under different conditions“). Instead, it’s “Just Right” so that students can get their hands and brains around it.
4) It has local significance, which makes it easier to research and raises the likelihood of its having an impact; and
5) It does not have a predetermined ‘correct’ answer but must be a genuine search for knowledge.
My first suggestion for a project that meets these criteria: WATER, which we take for granted but also which we cannot live without.
You may have read that President Trump is weakening the federal regulations regarding water quality, regulations that President Obama pushed through. Apparently this change will result in more development of wetlands and more use of water by agricultural industries (which already use about 70% of our fresh water).
That news report got me thinking about water. What follows will, I hope, be of some interest for students who decide to explore this topic.
Growing up, I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, about sailors stranded at sea and out of fresh drinking water. Its most famous verse goes this way:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
What about us? Will parts of the United States run out of water? Where water becomes a scarce resource, will ‘water wars’ break out?
While the earth’s surface is about 70% water, only about 2.5% of that is fresh water; the rest is ocean, saltwater. And most of that 2.5% is now in the form of ice, glaciers and sheets of ice around the North and South Poles. As that ice melts into the ocean, it becomes saline and therefore undrinkable, although the melting does contribute to rising sea levels. And the melting may also be having other consequences.
And while the actual amount of fresh water remains fairly constant because of the cycle of consumption, evaporation, and rainfall, the world’s population has exploded, meaning that competition for water is a fact of life.
Not only that, the average person today uses more water than they did 50 or 100 years ago, not just to wash and clean but also to grow the food we eat today. Want an example? Well, that hamburger you may have had for lunch took 630 gallons of water to produce, because raising cows is water-intensive.
As I mentioned, agriculture consumes about 70% of the world’s fresh water. Producing the beans for just one cup of coffee requires 35 gallons of water. Growing cotton is also a thirsty enterprise. It takes 2,640 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans and 660 gallons to produce a T-shirt. Avocados, almonds – even bottles of water themselves, are all highly water-intensive enterprises. So we could save water by changing our diets, and perhaps by buying fewer clothes, or wearing clothing that requires less water to produce (whatever that may be, I don’t know).
According to the United Nations, “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” It seems very possible–and frightening–that we will have ‘Water Wars’ in different places around the world.
What can be done to remedy this situation? I can think of three options but there may be others:
1) Use less water.
2) Recycle/repurpose water so we can use it more than once.
3) Turn saltwater into fresh, a process called desalinization.
The issue is almost paradoxical. Climate Change is melting the ice cap, which is causing the earth’s oceans to rise. That is, we have more saltwater, even as we are likely to experience shortages of fresh water.
It would be important to make this project local, which students can do by focusing on their own school and school district. How much water does their school consume in a typical day? And exactly how? Cooking, washing, watering plants, flushing toilets? What other ways?
Can you compare “water use per student” over the years? Are today’s students using more water, and, if so, why? (As mentioned above, across the world people are consuming more water than they did years ago.)
How much does water cost the school district, and how much has the water bill gone up over the years?
Students could go beyond their own school or school district and focus instead on their local government agencies and their water use. Or they could seek to learn about water use by local business and industry. Any of these inquiries could produce useful knowledge.
Finding out about local water use opens the door to larger (national and world) questions about water use, water recycling, and efforts to turn saltwater into drinkable fresh water.
Can we change? Well, knowledge is power, for openers. And the more we know, the more we can influence the future.
Who knows–maybe students who take on this issue will become hydrologists!
(In the next few weeks I will be suggesting projects involving garbage, infant brain development, and air quality. I hope you will share this post with teachers and others interested in quality education. Themerrowreport.com also provides a link if you wish to subscribe.)