Today’s students arrive to college with increased environmental awareness but often without the skills necessary to sort, interpret, and critically think about global environmental change or their relationship to it. To address the barrier of perceived student powerlessness in global environmental problems, we designed a transdisciplinary project for students to begin to take ownership of their learning experience, gain competencies in basic social science research methods, and explore agency with a community partner. In this case study, we narrate one exercise in which students created a public product of collated newspaper articles related to contemporary water issues in Oregon. The project involved the creation of an online database that resulted in a learning tool for future courses, a base for transdisciplinary research, and a deliverable for the public. The exercise proved valuable in demonstrating how students can engage with concepts of activist applied linguistics to evaluate positionalities of news sources while situating themselves as active and engaged members in their local environment. Homework assignments throughout the course revealed that students (1) gradually reported more positive and action-oriented views of their role in the environment and (2) developed greater competency in weighing the quality of media sources around environmental issues. We conclude with guided learning questions for faculty interested in implementing a similar exercise as well as suggested student discussion questions.

KEY MESSAGE

The case study narrates a transdisciplinary project involving activist applied linguistics (AAL), water justice, and a community partner. Students produced a website and an online database of narratives regarding water in Oregon (OregonWaterStories.com). The process of creating the website and database acted as a scaffold for students to learn to take ownership of their educational experience, practice skills for doing social science research, engage with water issues more deeply and critically, and explore their agency both in and outside of the classroom.

Individually we are one drop. Together we are an ocean.

—Ryunosuke Satoro

INTRODUCTION

We are witnessing a cultural shift in which students no longer arrive to college ignorant of global environmental problems, but are exposed to a 24-hour news cycle of rapid-fire, highly sensationalized information. However, today’s students often lack the necessary skills to sort, interpret, or critically think about what they hear in ways that empower them to engage in innovative solutions. Attempts to motivate students with crisis-oriented information may result in student paralysis rather than action [1]. Educational systems in the United States also present challenges for student empowerment and creative critical engagement with wicked problems—those intractable, complex social problems [2]. Many elementary and secondary schools in the United States still teach students a passive “banking method of education” [3] in which information is “deposited” by the teacher, rather than students actively co-constructing knowledge [4,5]. At the level of higher education, pathways are not well-supported for creating and implementing learning collaborations across disciplines that might lead to innovative solutions [4].

Transdisciplinary approaches are needed not only to address wicked problems [5], but also to create learning environments where students are able to develop competencies to work toward collaborative problem-solving around wicked problems. In order to mitigate the barrier of perceived student powerlessness in global environmental problems, we designed the website OregonWaterStories.com, a transdisciplinary project involving activist applied linguistics (AAL) (a branch of Applied Linguistics), Water Justice, and a community partner (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1.

Graphic representation of overlapping components of the OregonWaterStories.com project.

FIGURE 1.

Graphic representation of overlapping components of the OregonWaterStories.com project.

The project, centered around the creation of a database and website (OregonWaterStories.com) to collect data on the multiple identities around water in Oregon, acted as a scaffold for students to explore agency in and outside the classroom to develop skills necessary for engaging with wicked problems. In this case study, we outline the project’s theoretical grounding, context, implementation, assessment, and outcomes. We conclude with a discussion of the project’s benefits and how it can be used in future transdisciplinary work. The supplementary Teaching Notes detail daily lesson plans for the two courses that use the OregonWaterStories.com website as a learning tool.

CASE EXAMINATION

A Transdisciplinary Approach

The transdisciplinary approach described in this case study crosses disciplinary boundaries of AAL (see Teaching Note #1) and Water Justice (see Teaching Note #2). Students produced a website and an online database of narratives regarding water in Oregon (OregonWaterStories.com). The process of creating the website and database acted as a scaffold for students to learn to take ownership of their educational experience, practice skills for doing social science research, engage with water issues more deeply and critically, and explore their agency both in and outside of the classroom.

Activist Applied Linguistics

Cowal and Leung [5] defined AAL as an interdisciplinary, language-focused endeavor/field working toward positive social change in collaboration with community partners. AAL provides a perspective on inequity that takes into account language, its use, users, contexts, and relationships with power; it is grounded in theory and research from fields such as Critical Applied Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), and Social Anthropology. “Since language is fundamentally entrenched and embedded in all facets of society, wicked problems inherently involve language issues” [5]. AAL employs a language lens to take informed action along with others to tackle wicked problems [5].

In wicked problems, “narratives regarding causes and solutions vary depending on different stakeholders’ positions” [5]. CDA examines how narratives create/perpetuate/disrupt power in society [6] (e.g., notice the different positions presented in the choice of words for this sentence: Housing/Homelessness/House-less-ness is a problem/crisis). AAL applies theory from fields such as CDA and sociolinguistics to provide meta-perspectives of the language around wicked problems and partners with communities to co-create solutions [5]. Because knowledge is socially constructed, the questions people ask, what counts as meaningful knowledge, and what people think of as “the way things are or should be” come from particular perspectives, narratives, and frames. In societies, the narratives of dominant, more powerful groups are usually unmarked (i.e., not noticeable; considered to be natural and inevitable, neutral, or normal) [7]. AAL uncovers assumptions and power structures in narratives of wicked problems and shows that an unmarked narrative is but one perspective, making room for other possibilities. Thus, frames and outcomes of wicked problems are not inevitable or fixed and hence transformation is possible [8]. Being able to “get meta” on perspectives about narratives and unpack assumptions in language are empowering skills, they are significant steps in helping students understand issues from different stakeholders’ perspectives and in discovering and exploring agency.

Furthermore, AAL requires community engagement (i.e., power sharing with community partners, input, and involvement from community members). This means that “AAL recognizes and values different kinds of knowledges” which may or may not have been published in peer-reviewed journals. AAL asks who is or is not included in wicked problem discussions and seeks to include and “amplify voices that may be missing, muted, or marginalized” [5]. This lens helps students develop empathy and validate those voices often underrepresented in and outside the university. Engaging with communities to work on real-life issues both motivates students and promotes deeper, meaningful learning [9]. For this project, we engaged with a local non-profit organization, Environment Oregon, which organizes activities around the state to build water awareness. The mission of Environment Oregon (https://environmentoregon.org/) is “a statewide, non-profit environmental advocacy organization that works to protect clean air, clean water, and open spaces for all Oregonians.” Working on OregonWaterStories.com with Environment Oregon provided a local, authentic, and immediate context that gave students purpose and concrete deadlines.

Water Justice

Water justice intersects disciplinary framings of the human role in the environment. Water justice is concerned with the fair treatment, meaningful participation, and disproportionate allocation of water-related burdens and benefits based on classism, racism, and other forms of discrimination. It joins branches of environmental justice such as climate justice, energy justice, and food justice. At the same time, water justice recognizes that water has unique characteristics in the way it is moved, used, and stored, which impacts accessibility (e.g., distribution, allocation, affordability, etc.), quality (e.g., treatment, pollution, etc.), and quantity (e.g., droughts, floods, etc.). Water justice has taken the form of debates over a wide variety of issues such as clean drinking water [10], privatization of water for bottling [11], irrigation rights [12], and floodplain vulnerability [13]. Calls for water justice frameworks have emerged from social movements, [1417] policy shifts in water resource management, [18] and urban water management [19, 20].

Discussing water justice in the classroom can be an opportunity to explore issues of power, authority, and conflict over the seemingly neutral and universal topic of water. For example, if students had to choose only one community who would receive funding for a new water innovation, will students decide to offer that resource to the community who can use it the most (utilitarian), the community who needs it the most (egalitarian), or the community who came up with the idea (libertarian) [21, 22]? Through the lens of water justice, students can test their own assumptions about rights and responsibilities, values and fairness, and who gets to decide.

AAL provides the link between the data and a water justice interpretation. Using competency skills derived from AAL, students can learn how to read newspaper stories and consider arguments in greater depth to identify unmarked perspectives, who is and is not involved in making water decisions, why, and who ultimately benefits.

Project Context

The OregonWaterStories.com database was built by undergraduates in the Human/Nature class in Winter 2018 (and continues as new classes add material). The course structure builds on Haeffner’s work in socio-hydrological systems, hydrosocial perspectives, and water justice [2326]. The project was motivated in part by conversations with the community partner, Environment Oregon. As a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization, Environment Oregon’s primary activities focus on education and outreach around Oregon’s environmental issues and possible solutions. In 2018, they were involved in organizing World Water Day activities in Oregon, which fell during finals week for the students. Together, we decided to create a course-long project that would culminate in a final product that would be publicly accessible and educational. The community partner came to the class twice—first at the beginning of the term to introduce the project idea and again at the end of the term to watch the final presentations. They also provided feedback on a press release that the students drafted and linked their website to the students’ website. There is certainly room in the course for as much engagement with community partner as they have time for, and to involve multiple partners (which happened as the project grew).

The project was also motivated as a response to students’ final papers in the first term, which were marked with despair and pessimism. For example, one student submitted a futuristic dystopic short story in a way characteristic of the class sentiment:

“Before heading downstairs, I glance back at where Dad died remembering the last news story we watched together. The anchors encouraged people to get to their loved ones and spend humanity’s final year enjoying what we had left.”

In other words, the news anchor in this student’s story was a message that the actors had no control, autonomy, or power over an apocalyptic situation.

Going into the second term, we feared that presenting a series of contemporary water justice cases (e.g., replacing drinking water in the majority African American city of Flint, Michigan, to polluted sources [27], and relocating the Dakota Access Pipeline from a predominately white town to lands bordering the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation [28]) would serve to further overwhelm students with facts. Incoming students had entered college already showing signs of powerlessness in the face of environmentally related news content. Therefore, we asked: How can we teach students about environmental harms and social injustices while building a sense of agency?

The OregonWaterStories.com Exercise

The OregonWaterStories.com project is based on a scaffolding of student homework assignments building toward a public information website. The backbone of the website is content collected from six newspapers chosen using the following criteria: (1) Oregon-based, (2) location variety, (3) English availability, (4) online availability, and (5) enough water-related articles (50+). Students created teams of four or five students to focus on one newspaper. Each team constructed their own case study that they ultimately consolidated into the larger OregonWaterStories.com project (Figures 2 and 3). The project began with student training on archival data collection and content analysis (see Teaching Note #2 for a detailed methodology). The final products were: the live website, a press release announcing the launch, team reports, and an oral report to the community partner to practice science communication (see Teaching Note #2).

FIGURE 2.

Screenshot of homepage. https://www.oregonwaterstories.com/(accessed June 25, 2018).

FIGURE 2.

Screenshot of homepage. https://www.oregonwaterstories.com/(accessed June 25, 2018).

FIGURE 3.

Screenshot of interactive map. https://www.oregonwaterstories.com/interactive-map (accessed June 25, 2018).

FIGURE 3.

Screenshot of interactive map. https://www.oregonwaterstories.com/interactive-map (accessed June 25, 2018).

Assessment and Outcomes

Through this approach, students were able to identify multiple perspectives, weigh options, and articulate solutions that are currently being taken or could be taken to address challenges in promoting water justice. For example, one team wrote about a “hopeful” story in which a rural rancher installed infrastructure intended to reduce flood vulnerability in a low-income area as well as aid ecological restoration. “The purpose of this new flood control gate,” they write, “is to provide fish with a better passage and to also drain the fields when water levels are high.” Therefore, the project helped students learn about engineering adaptations while connecting it to human impacts and sustainability. Students were also able to relate what they were learning to the place in which they lived. For example, several students uncovered newspaper articles reporting on debates about adding fluoride to Oregon’s drinking water. Some students who grew up in Oregon shared memories of eating fluoride tablets when they were younger which surprised students who took fluoridated water for granted where they grew up. This debate prompted some students to ask their dentists about their thoughts on the subject. Other students learned about the steps that some cities were doing to test public schools for lead while still others learned about an initiative one city took to switch its water sources. Because students were also learning about water justice issues elsewhere in the United States, some argued that Oregon cities could learn from the experience of Flint, Michigan, when the city switched its water supplies to the Flint River and found lead problems. Some students reached out to municipal utilities to interview staff about water quality measures in Oregon.

Students also deepened their understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness between social actors and the natural environment. For example, each student was able to draw a concept map to articulate links between social actors and water issues by the end of the year, as Figures 4 and 5 demonstrate.

FIGURE 4.

Student drawn concept map articulating links between social actors and water issues.

FIGURE 4.

Student drawn concept map articulating links between social actors and water issues.

FIGURE 5.

Student drawn concept map articulating links between social actors and water issues.

FIGURE 5.

Student drawn concept map articulating links between social actors and water issues.

Students were able to summarize and ultimately synthesize ideas across a diverse range of experiences, articulate power relationships between actors, and identify absent voices. For example, one student reflects: “With all these themes mentioned and studied, it really gives a clear understanding of floods. It also greatly helps by thinking of the themes listed earlier as a connection between human and nature themes rather than two separate groups of themes.” Students also developed a sense of how to critically read media sources using AAL competencies, for example, this student reflected:

This is a good project for people to do because it’s good practice with interpreting what’s fed to us through the media. People should care about projects like this because this project in particular informs them about water-related issues that affect them directly. A lot of people, including myself, who live in Oregon assuming that our water is good and there’s a lot of it, completely unaware of the huge water problems our state is having, and that’s because they’re not on the headline stories. If they are informed that the water they are drinking or using for businesses may be impacted in the future, they can decide to take part in coming up with and acting upon solutions.

Reflection

First, we were only able to include English newspapers in the project. AAL requires that we include newspapers in languages other than English to learn how communities marginalized by language and/or culture frame water experiences and to collect data on water injustices that may be occurring in areas in Oregon where these communities live.

Second, because we were focused on agency and student ownership of the work they produced, we offered to include student names on the website. However, publishing content on the website prompted ethical dilemmas. On the one hand, we wanted to credit students with their work by displaying their names along with their submission as authors of website content. On the other hand, class discussion revealed that some students were uncomfortable being identified with their work because they thought it was premature to publish work as first year undergraduates and/or were uncertain how potential website consumers might use the content. Students solved the problem by creating a sign-up sheet to indicate if they wanted to be identified on the website through two separate mechanisms: (1) each summary would be credited to the author by initials, and (2) student online portfolios would be listed on the About Us page, both with an opt out option. Two out of 27 students opted out of any identifying markers.

Third, while students demonstrated an increased understanding of local water issues, students struggled with the concept of environmental racism. In class discussion, the majority of water injustice problems provided by students focused on age-related issues more than race-based, class-based, or even place-based discrimination. For example, in their discussion about lead in public schools’ drinking water, students focused on the vulnerability of children in general rather than making connections with lead and schools’ neighborhoods and racial/socioeconomic demographics. However, students’ in-class discussion notably moved from Term 1 comments disregarding racial inequity to Term 3 acknowledgments that racism does exist today in the United States. High exposure to racially motivated events occurred during the year and the students matured, so the course was most likely a small factor in this transition. However, by integrating concepts from water justice and AAL, the course provided vocabulary and ways to articulate power structures, and students cited course content in argument construction.

CONCLUSION

Agency is a critical skill for students to learn and practice at the college level to facilitate pro-sustainability behaviors, participate in transformational action, practice in teams, and appreciate the importance of interdisciplinary contexts. Through this project, we were able to allow students to garner agency and take ownership of a public product to promote environmental awareness. Homework content as displayed on an informational website and written reflections reveal student impacts in more positive and action-oriented views of their role in the environment and greater skill in weighing the quality of sources. Posting their work online gives students a sense of accountability, transparency, and authenticity. Furthermore, the database allows students to interact with it at their level; undergraduates can use it to practice fundamentals of social science research and data collection, while advanced undergraduates and graduates can perform more complex analysis using authentic, relevant data.

The jointly created database also solves a logistics problem often encountered in coordinating between multiple disciplines and community partners—that of time and place. The database can be analyzed whenever and wherever the researchers are without losing the temporal and historical context of the material. An added benefit of the project is that the database has formed a foundation for continuing collaborative work in AAL and water justice across departments and quarters, thus making transdisciplinary research and projects more efficient and sustainable. The data-driven website broadens the impact of teaching and engages student research with other disciplines, the community, and the public.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

Suggested Instructor Questions

  1. How might you use this case study to build your own transdisciplinary informative website on the multiple issues around water in your own community, state, or nation?

  2. How can you use agency to spur activism in your classroom?

  3. Do emotion and activism belong in the higher education curriculum? If so, where and how could you apply these concepts in your classroom?

  4. How can you use water justice case studies to build a syllabus that incorporates diversity, equity, and inclusion?

  5. What are other ways to encourage students to innovate solutions for local water issues?

  6. How might the activity be different if social media or other informational sources were used?

Suggested Student Questions

  • 7.

    Do you sometimes feel powerless when reading news articles about environmental problems? Why or why not?

  • 8.

    What do you want people to know about water in your community? What might be the best ways to communicate your message? Be aware of your own perspective and consider the perspectives of possible audiences as you craft your words and the manner in which you would present your message? What does a water justice community look like to you?

  • 9.

    What skills do you need to work toward water justice in your own community? What can be your first steps toward gaining such skills?

  • 10.

    How might water justice issues be different from other environmental justice issues such as food justice, climate justice, or energy justice?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

MH: conceptualization (of the human/nature course), figure preparation, and project administration (of the human/nature course). JC: conceptualization (of activist applied linguistics course) and project administration (of the applied activist linguistics course). MH and JC: conceptualization (of the article), methodology (teaching methods and activities), resources (modules and materials), writing (original draft preparation, review, and editing), and supervision (of the article authorship collaboration).

The authors would like to thank the students in the 2017–2018 and 2019 Humans/Nature courses and the Winter 2018 Activist Applied Linguistics course for their contributions, Andrew Klutley (Environment Oregon), Bobby Cochran (Willamette Partnership), Jackson Voekel of the Geography department at Portland State University (interactive map design), Tyler Broman (website design), Tatyana Stangell and Naureen Khan (Human/Nature peer mentors) and Clare McClellan and Tuna Cole (dataset managers). We are also grateful to the two reviewers for comments on the manuscript.

FUNDING

Funding to support the management and educational programming was provided as the usual course budgets by Portland State University.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS

Website: www.OregonWaterStories.com.

Teaching Note 1: Activist Applied Linguistics (handout). Docx.

Teaching Note 2: Water Justice. Docx.

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Supplementary data