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How to Bring Water Into the Classroom (Without Getting Wet)

Charles Fishman is the author of three books, including The Wal-Mart Effect and A Curious Mind. Today, Jennifer Manise, Executive Director of the Longview Foundation for Education in World Affairs and International Understanding interviews him on The Big Thirst, his book about water. 

On Thursday, June 30th at 8 pmET Charles will join the #GlobalEdChat discussion on Twitter to field questions about The Big Thirst. All are welcome to participate or review the transcript of the conversation after the fact here.

By guest blogger Jennifer Manise

Charles, I loved your book! From the first pages it made me ponder my lifelong relationship with water—how did you become interested in the topic and why did you spend three years writing about it?
Fishman_ppbk cover.jpegI became interested in water in 2007 when I checked into a hotel in Miami, Florida with my family. My wife consumed the bottle of Fiji Water just as I read the note that $7 will be added to the hotel bill for the consumption of that water. Where was Fiji? I wondered, and was this water really from there? I was not a bottled water person, but I took the empty plastic bottle home to my desk and began to research. Fiji Water actually does come all the way to the U.S. from Fiji and I soon discovered that 52% of the people who lived in Fiji at that time didn't have access to potable water in their homes. We in the U.S. had easier access to clean safe drinking water from Fiji than they did—it seemed both astonishing and ridiculous.

So, I wrote a piece for Fast Company magazine about the business of bottled water—a $24 billion industry. The piece got such a response that I decided to keep researching and turn it into a book. The fact that there was an imported bottle of water from Fiji in my hotel in the U.S., where we already have the best water on Earth, is what started it all—it cracked open the story of water for me.

What were some of the amazing things you learned about water once you delved into the topic?
First, I was amazed to discover that all water on earth is from space. I found that astonishing—oak trees and iPhones don't rain down from space fully formed. It is the only substance you'll come into contact with in your daily life that comes from space in exactly the form it is in now. Six months into reporting on the book I realized I had no idea where it came from. It is amazing—water has such an interesting heritage. It is cosmic juice! 

Second, let's think about the three states of matter and water we learn in school: vapor/clouds, liquid/water, and solid/ice. Many people don't know that water actually has a fourth form.  The largest amount of water on the planet by far is infused into the rock deep down in the Earth's crust. In fact, there is six times as much water infused into the crust of the earth as on the surface of the Earth. This water has an enormous impact! Continental drift happens because of it—continents have their plasticity due to that water. The only time we encounter it on the surface directly is when volcanoes erupt—70% of a volcanic eruption is steam released from water that was previously molecularly bound up in rock.

Why is water an important topic for teachers and school leaders to better understand and for students to study?
For me, one of the most fun things about water is that it doesn't matter what you're already interested in, there is an element of water already embedded in it that you probably haven't yet considered. Economics, politics, religion, arts, physics, geology, environmental studies—water is critical element in understanding of all of these systems. The challenge is to find water within the particular discipline. I used my passion for math a lot in the footnotes of the book—there is a whole separate book in the footnotes that tells the story of water through math. 

Water is important, surprising, and connected to any topic a student might be interested in. I am always in favor of surprising students. If you can surprise them on a regular basis you can keep them engaged in learning. Learning about water is important at many layers and levels and it cuts across every factor in our lives. People think they know water because it is such an ordinary part of our lives, but they really don't understand it at all. Familiarity has made us think we think we understand it and we don't.

Water is also going to be a really important topic in how we cope with the next 20-30 years in terms of climate change.

One thing teachers can do now to introduce water as a topic for learning is to be demanding of their students in their research. They can start with simple questions like: where does water come from in our local community? What is the security like where it comes from? What would happen if we suddenly found ourselves with 20% less or 20% more water?

Teachers, don't stop asking questions! Sometimes one question doesn't make learning interesting but the next nineteen questions that follow do. For many students the current mindset is to consult Google and not get past the first page of results or expect that it has all been explained already in a documentary on the History Channel. Have students get interested in big questions around water and dig in by answering multiple layers of questions in their own research. 

Students also can begin to understand their own voice—and you can see this in water. For instance, activism around bottled water consumption on university campuses often cascades out into colleges paying more attention to campus wide water use. Whenever a system gets involved, that is where students have a real impact. Also, students who spend time understanding water in school are more likely to engage in supporting improvements when they are voting citizens in their community.

What your book really drove home to me is that water is a supremely LOCAL issue and a vastly global issue at the same time. It has its roots in every aspect of our quality of life—peace, access to food, trading partners, security, etc. There is also an underlying civic imperative—you talk early in the book about the "golden age of water" coming to an end. You also describe the aging infrastructure in the U.S. and challenges with the changes in climate—is a civic understanding around access, affordability, and availability to water more important today when you started the book?
Water is going to turn out to be a really important topic in how we cope with the next twenty to thirty years in policy and climate change. Shifting rainfall patterns, food scarcity, way too much water, droughts in other places—these are all issues we are currently dealing with. Since January 1, two rain events in five months in Texas have happened that were considered "500-year events," which they clearly aren't anymore.

Coping with climate change is going to require imaginative, effective thinking to keep on top of water issues.  Right now we have a drought in India impacting over 300 million people, the Syrian conflict that is not only shaping a massive migration but also the economics of Europe today. Water has a cascade effect on all kinds of events—protests about water access were the foundation of the conflict in Syria.

I recently had a conversation with a water scientist at Berkley who was helping San Francisco rebuild their waterfront area. The question at hand was do they rebuild for twenty to fifty years of use or for the next thousand years? Water, civic, economic, and climate change issues were all wrapped up into that one challenge.

Flint, droughts in India, the new reality about rainfall in California—what are the water problems of tomorrow that we need our next generation to tackle? What skills do they need? Where is there room for improvement in how we get students to think about and understand how to solve these fundamental issues?
The state of water issues today are significant and solvable. While the entire western U.S. isn't in technical drought, there have been seven dry years out of the last ten. Lake Mead is the lowest it has been since 1935—the lowest in eighty years! Recently the water system in Toledo had to be turned off because of an algae bloom. People are paying attention! 

Before all of this, if you asked the people who are in charge of water what their number one problem was, they would have said our # 1 problem is that no one pays attention to us—which obviously impacts elemental issues like support for water spending and infrastructure upgrades.

Now that the number one complaint is satisfied—people are paying attention to water—what is next? The time to fix water problems is when people are paying attention. Neither one of our presidential candidates is talking about water at all. There is a list of fixes we must do. Our water pipes are graded D minus by engineers in the U.S. (people only give D minuses because they don't want to do the paperwork to give Fs!).

Water problems don't go away&,dash;when you discover a wet spot in your ceiling, the correct response is not to put you hand over your eyes and walk out of the room. Water problems only get worse. All problems are solvable—you just need to pay attention and start doing the right thing. The most important thing right now is to not let this moment of attention slip away.

Water is one of the few places in American society that hasn't had a significant technological revolution or industry disruption in the past century—many other industries have been completely transformed in just the past 30 years—entertainment, medicine, real estate, computers all come to mind. The water revolution is coming! The industry has traditionally been resistant—there is a certain mindset of "we've always done it this way." At the same moment about half the people who currently run water systems in the U.S. are going to retire in the next five years. Most are smart/community-minded and thoughtful and they've done their job well.

But this is an incredible moment of opportunity for new perspectives and true disruption of the system by creative thinkers. And it's also a great moment for young people to get jobs in a business, the business of water, that is vitally important and also needs help. If you have the slightest interest in water—managing water in the environment, industrial process, city water supplies, and more—the world needs you and there are going to be jobs. There is an opportunity for the next generation to have a huge impact on the field.

Connecting what we learn in the classroom and what we need for life—we need to have people make sure water is safe and secure. You can step into the world of water and be creative and disruptive because water is so far behind.

In 20 years, today's 9th graders will be running the world. There are ways of thinking about water problems and addressing them in the classroom now that will help them think through how to tackle those challenges with imagination and determination. There is not a single solution to all of the challenges we are facing, but rather a way of critical thinking and problem-solving that will be fundamental to addressing these issues. Introducing water as a topic for deeper learning will prepare tomorrow's leaders to rise to the challenges they will be facing.

Charles, thank you again for writing such a compelling book that has so many classroom applications and global ideas. We can't wait to read your next book about the race to the Moon in the 1960s.

Connect with Charles, Longview Foundation, and Heather on Twitter.

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