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Water, River, and Community: Bridging Community, Environment, and Outreach Through a Transdisciplinary Course

Connected Science Learning July-August 2021 (Volume 3, Issue 4)

By Suzanne Nesmith, Charlie Walter, Sandi Cooper, Cole Matson, Tisha Emerson, Melissa Mullins, Julia Daniel, and Paul Martens

Water, River, and Community: Bridging Community, Environment, and Outreach Through a Transdisciplinary Course

Community-based learning strengthens the connection between schools and the surrounding community, therefore increasing community engagement for participating students and making learning more meaningful (Prast and Viegut 2016). Further, community-based learning helps students develop skills for taking action on community issues. Realizing these benefits and recognizing that “the education system faces irrelevance unless we bridge the gap between how students live and how they learn” (Melaville et al. 2006, p. 1), Baylor University faculty members came together to design and implement a course that incorporated a transdisciplinary community-based approach in addressing the wicked problem of freshwater resources—an environmental problem that is large scale, long-term, includes divergent values and perspectives, and defies easy solutions or resolutions (Vogel et al. 2016).

The use of a transdisciplinary approach within community-based learning experiences results in students’ wider, more realistic views of local environments, allowing for an enhanced world view and better solutions to wicked problems. As opposed to both a multidisciplinary approach that examines topics from several disciplines and an interdisciplinary approach that connects the transfer of knowledge, concepts, models, and methods from one discipline to another, a transdisciplinary approach involves “what is between the disciplines, across the disciplines and beyond the disciplines” (Marinova and McGrath 2004, p. 3). Moreover, transdisciplinary understanding moves beyond interdisciplinary understanding because knowledge and the modes of thinking of stakeholders outside the academic arena are included. Thus, through the adoption of a transdisciplinary community-based approach, a major goal of this course was to provide a means of moving beyond both the university’s institutional boundaries and local community boundaries to include a wider set of stakeholders capable of working together to approach the complex problem of managing freshwater resources and balancing the impact of water use (Brown et al. 2010).

Developing the Idea

In the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Langston Hughes (2002) shares: “I’ve known rivers:/ I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins./ My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (lines 1–3). As rivers flow across the land, they are used and managed by multiple stakeholders and user groups for myriad human and nonhuman uses. These user groups often present conflicting demands and perspectives in both quantity and quality of water. On local, national, and global scales, water is inextricably linked to critical social issues such as energy use, health and human development, poverty, food scarcity, and environmental degradation. As such, water serves as a wicked problem that is complex in scope and requires technological solutions alongside economic, equity, and ethical considerations. Additionally, water presents an environmental conflict that is often so heavily value-based that not even strong evidence can settle stakeholder differences and avoid conflicts (Crowley and Head 2017).

With recognition of these factors, a team of university faculty members at a private, faith-based university collaborated to design a river-focused, real-world, inquiry-based, community-embedded, transdisciplinary learning experience to address the wicked problem of managing our freshwater resources to ensure water for human consumption, agriculture, and industry while at the same time balancing the impact of water use on the environment. The course syllabus stated, “Students are submerged in the wicked problem of water, and, through exposure to multiple perspectives and means of examining the problem, they emerge with a vision of the role they can play in addressing this and other similar issues at local, national, and global scales.” The university supported this course as an important experiment in finding better ways to engage students in addressing real-world problems and contexts. Bringing multiple disciplines to the table to both engage students and present a topic in its full complexity was an important goal of the effort.

One summer, six faculty from Baylor University attended the Science Education and New Civic Engagement and Responsibilities (SENCER) Summer Institute. SENCER is an initiative of the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement focused on empowering faculty and improving STEM teaching and learning through connections to civic issues. The SENCER Summer Institute provided the university team with numerous models and strategies to consider.

Once back at the university, the original team members determined that a transdisciplinary, community-based approach led by a multidisciplinary team would be the best approach for immersing students in the wicked problem of water in ways that expose them to multiple perspectives and means of examining the problem. Our goal was having students emerge with a vision of the role individuals can play in addressing this problem and the ability to apply this way of thinking to similar problems in the future. Thus, the original team of six— representing faculty from museum studies, education, economics, and the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research—expanded to a team of nine including faculty from environmental science, religion, and English. The team met monthly over the next year (with almost all team members participating in all meetings) and used backward design focused on the course goal and objectives (Figure 1) to develop a sequence of activities that would allow students to acquire understandings and competencies to meet these objectives (e.g., a better understanding of the urban water cycle, environmental ethics, economic valuation, value of museum collections, water quality, aquatic ecosystems, literature related to the river, global water issues).

Figure 1
figure 1

Additionally, faculty from the Education Department recommended the BSCS 5E Instructional Model as a framework for designing the course (Bybee et al. 2006), which supports students in their construction of a deeper, richer understanding of scientific and technological knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Each phase of the 5E Model (engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate) serves a specific function, and the phases can be applied to single lessons as well as multi-disciplinary, problem-based STEM units (Bybee 2019). When applied to STEM units, the 5E phases include introducing students to place-based and problem-based situations, exploring the problem through multiple disciplines, and evaluating how various disciplines create a better understanding of the problem and contribute to the solution. Thus, the 5E model aligned well with the course goals and outcomes.

With this design framework in mind, and focusing on the essential questions—“What is a river? Why are rivers important? What is the relationship between a river’s health and a community’s health?”—the team identified different perspectives and experiences to form the specific guiding questions for the four-credit-hour course. Since inquiry-based, firsthand experiences for students were critical, the class initially explored the essential questions by focusing on the Brazos River, the longest river in the state, which runs directly through the university campus. Students in the course learned firsthand about the ecology of the Brazos River and how the community relies on it, thus providing a springboard for applying similar approaches to consider issues of freshwater resources on a global scale (see Table 1 in Supplemental Resources for a description of all course activities and corresponding specific questions).

Recruiting students for a new course offering is typically a challenge, which was exacerbated by the fact that the course had no prior university history, requirements, or feedback. Faculty members worked within their departments to get the course approved as an elective or required element of degree plans. The faculty team knew that having students from a diverse set of majors would best support the transdisciplinary nature of the course. Further, having students from a variety of disciplines would simulate what happens in the real world: community members from various backgrounds coming together to address a complex challenge. Twelve students enrolled. Their majors included political science, education, museum studies, environmental studies, English, and university scholar (the university scholar degree incorporates a personalized, transdisciplinary approach in Liberal Arts and Sciences).

Introducing the Problem and Perspectives

In introducing students to the local river (the model for thinking locally), the team looked at literature related to rivers (and the Brazos River specifically), explored the natural history collection of the local Mayborn Museum (which holds specimens collected in and along the local river dating back over 100 years), and traveled the river via canoe.

The course began with an introduction of the essential question through river-themed poetry from Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (2002), and Walter McDonald’s (1987) Losing a Boat on the Brazos:

            Downriver rocks were rapids. Believe me,

            Even fish have ears. Sweating, we coasted

            Too far out on a river we’ve fished

            For forty years. I swear it’s never

            been this low, but two old farmers

            can’t keep the Brazos full forever. (stanza 1)

Through guided group discussion of poetic form and word choice, students explored how the poets connected these watersheds to individual human bodies, wider cultural communities, and deep ecological histories. They concluded with a general discussion about how art forms, like literature, shape our environmental imaginations in ways that can encourage (or limit) healthy engagement with our river systems.

Students then explored the natural history collection of the Mayborn Museum. The museum’s collection dates to the late 19th century. Students surveyed the vastness of the collection as well as spent time in focused observations of specimens collected along the Brazos River. Students were surprised to see a six-foot-long alligator gar, a river otter, and mud crabs that looked like they belonged 300 miles downstream along the state’s coast. This activity introduced students to a historic context of the many animals that live in and along the river.

A museum curator shares information about Brazos River specimens.
Museum curator shares information about Brazos River specimens.
Students explore the museum's natural history collection.
Students explore the museum natural history collection.

Next, students took a river trip to see some of these animals in their natural habitat. The river trip started just below a dam, 35 miles northwest of the Baylor campus. Lunchtime on a gravel bar included a discussion about the required reading for the trip, John Graves’s (1960) Goodbye to a River, a book about traveling the Brazos River before dams were in place. The river flows shallow and clear for the eight-mile trip, and students’ reflections included:

  • “The paddle trip made me realize the difference between the water at the marina and on the Brazos.”
  • “My biggest aha moment was the paddle trip and realizing the accessibility of rivers.”
  • “After the paddle trip, I feel an affection for the river.”

Their reflections not only revealed the impact of the firsthand river experience, but also echoed Graves’s (1960) words:

Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making six or eight miles in a day's lazy work, but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind. You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be. (p. 3)

Students take a break during the eight-mile river canoe trip.
Students take a break during the eight-mile river canoe trip.

Communicating and Clarifying Varying Disciplines

After experiencing Graves’s writing and the museum’s historical record of wildlife that lived in and along the river, students learned about the complexity of managing the river today. A panel with representatives from various community organizations illustrated for students the unique roles and responsibilities of the agencies and organizations responsible for managing the Brazos River and its water as a resource that enables the community and its economy to thrive. These experts discussed how water is currently managed in the state, important policies and regulations, how the agencies interact with one another to keep the public informed about water issues, and potential future impacts to the state’s water resources. Specific issues centered on how the needs related to different water uses that sometimes may be in conflict with one another—drinking water, water rights for irrigation, flood control, aquatic life such as fish, and wildlife—are prioritized and managed. Panelists included representatives from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Waco city commissioner, the Texas Nature Conservancy, and the Brazos River authority.

Additional classes covered the topics of water policy, the urban water cycle, water pollution, and environmental ethics. Students visited the city’s water treatment plant and the wastewater treatment facility, and spent a day taking scientific measurements in a tributary of the Brazos River to determine water quantity and quality (see Table 1 for a description of all course activities; see Supplemental Resources).

Students gather river stream flow data.
Students gather river stream flow data.

Exploring Solutions and Connecting to the Community

Following this exploration and consideration of natural, physical, and chemical components of the Brazos River, students examined economic considerations of water issues by conducting a cost-benefit assessment of a local water project. After considering various ways to improve water quality, the class selected a project to improve the quality of an urban creek, which runs through the university campus and empties into the Brazos River. The creek watershed includes much of the city, and a deluge of rain washes large amounts of trash into the creek. The students learned how to develop and conduct a Contingent Valuation Method (CVM) survey to determine if their fellow students would be willing to incur a new student fee to fund the purchase of equipment that would stop and collect trash in the creek before it entered the campus (see Appendix in Supplemental Resources for survey). Seventy-seven percent of respondents (N = 365) indicated they would support a fee increase to fund the project.

In addition to learning about the many perspectives and disciplines that impact water resource decisions, students also shared what they learned via community events, such as an “All About Water: Ecology and Science on the River” Community Day at the museum. A few weeks later, two classes of elementary students traveled to the museum for a similar event organized by students. Students developed activities to share with museum visitors and elementary students, such as identifying various species of animals that live in and along the river, learning about animal adaptations, and exploring ways to clean polluted water.

Students and community members engage in a hands-on river station experience during the museum Community Day.
Students and community members engage in a hands-on river station experience during the museum Community Day.

From Local to Global

As a final activity the class worked in teams to select a global water issue and analyzed it using the following disciplinary lenses: literature; museum collections; field studies; sociology; religion; environmental- and water-specific laws and policies; and environmental science, toxicology, chemistry, economics, and education. As part of this work, the class held a video conference with former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell who talked with the class about the challenges she faced trying to manage natural and cultural resources on a national level and answered student questions about this challenging work.

Students demonstrated their learning though three group presentations at the culmination of the course:

  1. The Ganges River from the perspectives of water quality and quantity, water-related diseases, economic issues, and as a cultural space for the people of India.
  2. China’s water issues with a specific focus on policy, governance, regulation, scarcity, and the sociopolitical landscape.
  3. Global water issues relating to the poor regarding health, education, availability, and advocacy from a more general instead of place-based perspective.

Evaluation of Course Goals

The course evaluation assessed how effectively the course

  • addressed the instructor-identified learning objectives and
  • enhanced students’ understanding of, and abilities and desire to address the challenge of water quantity and quality at both local and global levels.

To this end, a course survey was developed and used multiple times throughout the semester. Each iteration of the course survey used slight question variations, and students completed all three course surveys in handwritten form during three scheduled class meetings in August, October, and December. The initial course survey asked students to provide their reasons for joining the course and their personal goals for the course. The mid-semester survey asked students to indicate their biggest aha moment and to reflect upon their progress toward attaining their goals. The post-course survey asked students to provide what they found most and least effective about the course and topics they considered essential/non-essential. Additionally, students responded to the following questions in each of the three surveys:

  1. What is a river?
  2. Why are rivers important?
  3. What is the relationship between a river’s health and a community’s health?

The standard university course evaluation was also administered at the end of the semester, completed anonymously through the university’s electronic survey system.

Faculty reviewed the first and second course survey after they were completed, but the final course survey and the university course evaluation were not viewed by faculty until after all final grades had been submitted.


Data collected from these surveys and feedback from participating faculty identified successes, challenges, and opportunities for improvement:

  • Students and faculty both reported that the course included too many topics, experiences, and requirements.
  • Students found the four-hour length challenging, especially on days that were primarily lecture. The four-credit-hour course was scheduled once a week for four hours to allow for field-based experiences and also met on the weekend for the canoe trip, water sampling, and museum community day. Student comments included: “I did not like that it was one class a week. In a setting with shorter, more frequent classes, we would learn more deeply.” 
  • Students felt that the professors involved had differing expectations and grading practices and found this frustrating. “The amount of different expectations from professors. Almost too many cooks in the kitchen, we never knew what to expect from the grades or our assignments.”    
  • Students appreciated the interactive, interdisciplinary, and practical elements of the course. “The interactive aspect of the class was great. Getting to see things and topics we discussed in class was conducive to my learning.” “The practical experience was for me the most successful. I particularly enjoyed canoeing the [river] and visiting the water and wastewater treatment plants.” “Interdisciplinary classes should be a norm at university level. Experts in the fields came together to discuss a broad topic.” “I think the presentations coupled with hands-on activities worked well.”
  • Students’ reasons for participating in the course ranged from general to specific interest. Specific reasons included, for example: “I want to pursue a career in an interdisciplinary environmental field,” “I am interested in creation care,” and “I am interested in learning more about the relationship between rivers and our community.” 
  • Similarly, students revealed their course goals in both general and specific terms, such as: “To learn more about the [r]iver” and specific expressions, “To dive deeper into water politics and issues,” and “To understand all the different bodies of water and their interactions and how to teach these topics to students.”

Broadening and deepening of students’ understanding of rivers; the importance of rivers; and the relationship between water, rivers, and the community was evidenced throughout the semester. Initial student responses to “What is a river?” developed over the course from “A body of water that flows into the ocean” and “A body of water that is a fresh source” to  “A water system that supports and sustains the community and ecosystems within it,” and “A complex system involving economic, ecological, anthropogenic, legal, and scientific factors. It is a multi-dimensional entity that maintains a direct relationship with the surrounding community.” Likewise, though a few students recognized at the start of the semester that rivers are important because “They are essential to life and ecosystems,” other students had more limited views such as, “They carry water into the land and provide a home to all types of creatures,” and “They provide drinking water for living beings and a home for animals.” At the end of the semester, however, all students referenced a river’s importance in terms of supporting and sustaining communities and having a direct impact on all living things in which it comes in contact. Growth in students’ understanding of the relationship between rivers and the community as well as the impact of the transdisciplinary course experience can be summed up by this student response: “When the river is healthy, the community is healthy, we rely on the river and the river relies on us to keep it alive,” and the relationship between the health of a river and its surrounding community can be explored through “sampling, exploring, and education. Going out and getting close to the river allows you to experience it at a personal level and makes your own interest and concern grow. Sharing this with the community can help a river from reaching an unhealthy state.”

Conclusions, Recommendations, and Future Plans

The adoption of a transdisciplinary approach provides a means of moving beyond a university’s institutional boundaries to include a wider community of stakeholders capable of working together to approach complex wicked problems that defy easy solution or resolution (Brown et al. 2010). Course evaluation revealed students’ enhanced conceptual understanding and perspectives toward rivers and the relationships between water, rivers, and communities.

Research has shown that academic knowledge alone fails to solve society’s most pressing problems (Remington-Doucette et al. 2013), thus individuals in academic settings at all levels must continue to explore approaches that present students with opportunities to look through various lenses as they investigate wicked problems that are difficult to define, socially complex, lack clear solutions, and involve many interdependencies. Our interdisciplinary team believes that leveraging an inquiry-based transdisciplinary approach to a wicked problem within a college-level course is a valuable strategy because it provides a means for supporting students who are preparing to enter the workforce where they will be responsible for solving complex problems and educating others in strategies to approach and address complex issues.

Since the initial course experience, we have not offered the class to students again, though the involved faculty members voiced the need to continue offering such classes. Individual aspects of the course have continued, such as a Water Festival for local K–12 students and student internships in the university Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research (CRASR). Since this course was offered, the core curriculum of the College of Arts and Sciences has been significantly revised and thus we are exploring how this course could be refined to fit into the new course option category of Contemporary Social Issues and Scientific Method.

Based on lessons learned and with thoughtful consideration and discussion of the following matters, there could be a vibrant future for this course:

  • Development of common assignment expectations and grading policies across content areas/faculty.
  • Inclusion of community members in course planning, design of course activities, and publicizing public events associated with the course.
  • Further discussions with university administrators regarding the possibility of implementing specific course-related actions, such as the Contingent Valuation Method (CVM) project discussed earlier.
  • Better management of faculty teaching loads and responsibilities that recognizes the time investment required to offer transdisciplinary courses.

Our faculty team continues to reflect on the positive aspects of the course, lessons learned, student interest, and the value provided by transdisciplinary learning, and is eager for the opportunity to again offer the course to students. Students who completed the course and have now graduated have communicated with us about the impact of the course in their current roles as educators in formal school settings and informal learning environments such as zoos and museums. Moreover, though the course did not include the actual implementation of the CVM  project, numerous class members took the initiative to talk to university officials. The university did not act on the proposal, yet students maintain their interest in the project and indicate that because of their participation in the course, they will never look at a river in the same way again.

Suzanne Nesmith ( is an Associate Professor of STEM Education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Charlie Walter is the Director of the Mayborn Museum Complex in Waco, Texas. Sandi Cooper is a Professor of Mathematics Education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Cole Matson is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Tisha Emerson is a Professor of Economics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Melissa Mullins is an Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Reservoir and Aquatic Systems Research Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Julia Daniel is an Associate Professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Paul Martens is an Associate Professor of Ethics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

citation: Nesmith, S., C. Walter, S. Cooper, C. Matson, T. Emerson, M. Mullins, J. Daniel, and P. Martens. 2021. Water, river, and community: Bridging community, environment, and outreach through a transdisciplinary course. Connected Science Learning 3 (4).


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Hughes, L.B. 1951. The Negro speaks of rivers.  

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