A Course Scaffold for Integrating Science and Culture: A Water Example

Amy Charkowski, Colorado State University; Hugo Gutierrez, University of Texas at El Paso; Sharon Locke, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; Joey Nelson, Stanford University; Tracy Wacker, University of Michigan-Flint

Course Description (for instructors)

The History and Future of Water integrates the sciences and humanities. This course will engage students with different perspectives (e.g, economics, geological, hydrological, societal) on the history of water and guide students to integrate these with their own perspectives based on personal and cultural beliefs. This integrated understanding will lead students to a STEM-informed and culturally-informed approach for thinking about water sustainability and resiliency. Students create a digital portfolio over the entirety of the course that showcases this integrated learning for them as an individual to be shared with other students, thereby learning from one another’s cultural backgrounds and experiences. Instructors can easily adapt this course to fit their disciplinary expertise and specific group of students!

Goals of the Course

This course is malleable for different student populations and institutional contexts by providing an academic scaffold, where specific content knowledge is selected based on instructor expertise and student input. Similarly, instructors are encouraged to provide support and opportunities for students by using campus resources and external partnerships, such as library staff and local water conservation organization and wastewater treatment facility staff, respectively. In this scaffolded course we are examining water as an evolving resource and the concepts of sustainability and resiliency, wherein students will interrogate and reshape their own perceptions and knowledge on the history and future of water. By integrating learning from natural and social sciences with humanities, students will reflect on the differences in the physical world relating to cultural aspects of water. Through this, students will develop important skills such as critical and creative thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. Students will create a portfolio to demonstrate their learning. Intense reflection on and reassessment of their own relationship with water will ground their approach to water sustainability and resiliency.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes below are intentionally written for the perspective of the instructor designing the course, not a student-facing set of outcomes. Multiple learning outcomes will be integrated into course activities and the culminating project, such that evaluation of multiple learning outcomes may occur through assessment of each classroom activity, whether in-person or virtual. The course portfolio page includes a link to a mapping of learning outcomes to the three domains of knowledge.

Foundational Knowledge (core knowledge that is essential for learners to obtain as a part of the discipline in which the course(s) is situated):
(F1) Students will articulate how water is an agent of change across space and time, from the origins of water on the planet to its role in the evolution of Earth through deep time.
(F2) Students will examine scientific applications of water knowledge, or lack thereof, by various stakeholders, for example in issues of food safety, hydrologic and geochemical resources, and agriculture.
(F3) Students will use quantitative and qualitative data to understand water processes and techniques for assessing water quality and quantity.
(F4) Students will identify and evaluate evolving challenges of water access and quality.

Humanistic Knowledge (attributes that provide a learner with a vision and narrative of the self within social contexts, scaling from local to global):
(H1) Students will synthesize different scientific and humanistic perspectives of water and interrogate how they inform and influence each other–including views from culture, ethics, art, and archeology.
(H2) Students will assess the origins of their own cultural attitudes toward water and knowledge about water.
(H3) Students will explain how they respect water.
(H4) Students will develop ability to internalize the value and risk of water to cultures different from their own.

Meta Knowledge (skills, mindsets, and attitudes that address the process of working with core STEM knowledge, turning knowledge into action):
(M1) Students will make connections between their lives and water.
(M2) Students will reevaluate their worldview based on new learning in the foundational and humanistic categories.
(M3) Students will hold and appraise the value of contradictory or paradoxical scientific and/or cultural paradigms/ideas/values about natural resources (including water).
(M4) Students will analyze how science- and culture-based worldviews influence how we relate to the natural environment at present and in the future, for example decisions that led to unintended consequences of water decisions.

Assessing Course Outcomes

The course outcomes will be evaluated at two levels: 1) learning outcomes will be assessed through the individual work of the students throughout the semester, and 2) a group evaluation provided by the instructor will assess the effectiveness of the course as a tool for delivering a collaborative active learning experience and for assessing the impact of the interactions among instructor and students throughout the course.

1. Learning outcome assessment at the individual student level will occur through repeating reflective activities given throughout the course and evaluation of the course-long project, which will be the generation of a StoryMap (a digital product combining prose and visuals) that displays integrated scientific and cultural understanding of course material. The assessment of this project will take place over the entire course as activities and smaller assignments build out pieces of the culminating StoryMap. These activities and smaller assignments will be devised to target specific learning outcomes and yield opportunities for the instructor and peers to provide feedback on work that will eventually go into the final course project. The repeating reflective assignments will lead students in articulating their in-the-moment understanding of and answers to big questions from the course, which will be re-read and re-examined by students to facilitate their metacognitive awareness of their learning and by instructors to track student growth.

2. Course effectiveness will be assessed using a course StoryMap developed by the instructor highlighting the more salient aspects of the course in terms of where and how students gained a deeper understanding of the subject matter and summarizing the collective knowledge generated by the group. This exercise will serve two purposes: (1) it will provide the students a holistic view of the accomplishments of the entire learning community during the course, allowing them to observe and internalize the knowledge and skills they have developed and the benefits of their collaborative work, and (2) the instructor’s StoryMap will help assess the strongest and most effective parts of the course and the areas where improvements can be made for future versions of the course.

Demonstrative Course Portfolio

The  course portfolio we have devised includes (1) the culminating StoryMap project guide and (2) an example activity for use during the course to scaffold student learning in preparation for a specific aspect of the StoryMap.

Additionally, we share this draft conceptual schematic of the course to highlight the integration of the three knowledge domains detailed above and iterative nature of developing a StoryMap through course activities:

Conceptual model

The Student Portfolio: A History and Future of Water StoryMap

Amy Charkowski, Colorado State University; Hugo Gutierrez, University of Texas at El Paso; Sharon Locke, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; Joey Nelson, Stanford University; Tracy Wacker, University of Michigan-Flint

Context and Purpose

The History and Future of Water course engages students in different perspectives of water (economics, geological, hydrological, societal, etc) and its evolving situation. Students will integrate these perspectives with their own perspectives based on personal and cultural beliefs through a digital, hands-on course project scaffolded through active learning assignments. The students will build on their own projects throughout the course developing an integrated understanding, leading students to a STEM-informed and culturally-informed approach for thinking about water sustainability and resiliency. Students will describe their own relationship to, and respect for, water and will then reflect on how this affects sustainability and resiliency of water in their community. The course project will become the vehicle for the student’s learning and will reflect in a tangible way their integrated learning and their evolving views on the subject as an individual to be shared with other students (thereby learning from one another) and the public.

Specifically, students will develop a portfolio presented as a StoryMap (a digital product combining prose and visuals) describing what was learned in class and connecting it to student’s cultural knowledge of water. Portfolios in StoryMap include activities that are scaffolded across learning outcomes to the culminating assignment where students reflect on these connections to their lives. The StoryMap project is designed to incorporate evidence of all student activities and their learning progression in the course. Each activity will address one or more learning outcomes so that the student has evidence of all learning outcomes by the time they write their culminating reflection. As an option students could present their StoryMap at a colloquium at the end of the semester to the university/college and/or external stakeholders. The StoryMap may also be published on a website and made accessible to stakeholders and the general public.

Description and Materials

An Example Course Catalogue Description (for students)

You use water. We use water. Water problems need new solutions. Let’s talk about them! Together we will create a description of our use of and relationship to water. You will also learn the underlying hydrogeological science that explains water migration and transformation in the environment. You will develop a StoryMap that details your water use, the risks to this water, and your values as they related to water. Your final StoryMap will yield a digitally sharable product that demonstrates your ability to approach real sustainability issues from a strong scientific and humanistic base. By the end of this class, you will be prepared to participate in cross-cultural engagement about water quality and access. Students from all backgrounds and majors are welcome!

StoryMap Structure

The StoryMap purpose and audience is malleable to a specific course, instructor, and student level. We do suggest providing students clear direction on selecting the audience and purpose of their StoryMaps. Below we provide an example of such a framing and external communication to a particular audience.

The pages of the StoryMap may be grouped or expanded based on the type of course and level of student background. For an introductory first-year undergraduate course, three to four StoryMap pages may contain this information with a figure and few paragraphs each, whereas a graduate course project may have each subsection as its own page with real data. Parts of the StoryMap are described below where each piece is mapped to learning outcomes from the final product page and a cross-referencing table is provided here: StoryMap-LearningOutcomes.xlsx (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 10kB Oct21 20)

1. My Water Use

  • Global Water Cycle: Draw a conceptual map of a global water budget (proportions, residence times in each reservoir, fluxes between reservoirs). (F1, F3, H3, M2)
  • Personal Water Budget: Document your water footprint relative to categories of water use in their area. (F3, H2, M1)
  • Present Local Water Origins and Transformations: Identify and map where your current water comes from, where it goes, and if it changes its qualities along the way. Include municipal processes, geologic/hydrologic formation, and human interactions/interventions along the route. (F1, F3, F4, H2, H3, M1)
  • Historical Local Water Origins and Transformations: Identify if your current water has undergone a change over time or not, and explain why. Explore aspects of water sources and the human interactions with the water cycle, such as over-exploitation and sustainability efforts. (F4, H2, H3, M1, M2)
  • Comparison to Another Locality*: Portray the historical context of water use and sources (i.e. human acquisition and hydrogeologic formation) in a location important to you other than your current location over the past “some**” years. (F4, H1, H4, M2, M3, M4)
    [*instructors have opportunity to select a comparison location for all students to examine, allow student to select a second locality, and/or use the comparison location as an opportunity for students to perform certain analyses]
    [**some in this context means 100, 200, 300, or any other number of years]

2. Risks to Water

  • Identify risks: Identify and map risks to their current water supply such as contamination, climate change, or insufficient water. Describe the risks with available data, describe how the data were obtained, and assess magnitude of risk from quantitative and qualitative scientific perspectives. (F3, F4, H4, M1, M2, M3)
  • Portray risk: Create your own artistic representation of risk to a water source (e.g., poetic, pictorial, science fiction narrative). For the same risk to the water source, describe an artistic representation created by another individual or group. (F1, F4, H1, H2, M2, M4)
  • Mitigate risk: Describe the impacts of these water risks on different peoples in the affected region. Develop a mitigation strategy for a group of people by determining your stakeholder role and making your case from that perspective. (F2, F4, H1, M2, M4)

3. Water Values

  • History of values: Tell the story of what you were taught about water growing up (e.g., photos, oral history, autobiographical essay). (F2, H1, H2, H3, M1, M2)
  • Identify conflicting personal values: Personal and scientific values may agree or conflict. Describe how holding these congruous or conflicting ideas influences your actions. (F2, H1, M1, M2, M3)
  • Identify conflicting stakeholder values: Different stakeholders’ values may agree or conflict based on disparate needs, motivations, and knowledge about water. Describe and evaluate a conflict between two stakeholders based on these values. (F4, H2, H4, M3, M4)
  • Portray values: Describe how the value of water is represented in a dimension of your personal culture (e.g., art, music, and literature). Identify artistic representations that show conflicting values of water. (F1, F4, H1, H2, M2, M4)
  • Respect water: In a reflective essay and/or images, describe how your respect for water has changed and shapes the future of your personal engagement with water sustainability and resiliency. (F2, H2, H3, M1, M2, M4)

4. Artist’s Statement

  • Provide a final artist’s statement page describing why you chose to build your StoryMap as you did. Include how you have attempted to portray people and communities with respect to cultural competence and copyright issues. Include how you interacted with other students throughout the course and how it influenced your construction of your StoryMap. (H2, H3, H4, M1, M2, M3, M4)

Example Scaffolding Activity

Personal Water Footprint Analysis (see link to a useful online calculator below in the resources section): Students will calculate their personal water footprint to make connections between their lives and water (M1). They will analyze the results (F3) and understand the underlying methodology that calculated these results. Students will become aware of the concept of virtual water. Students will determine what changes could be made to their water usage and consider how their cultural attitudes have affected their water usage to date (H2). We suggest students undertake this activity early in the course, recalculate it later in the course to assess changes in their water footprint, and recalculate it at the end of the course based on their ideal actions to reduce their water footprint in the future.

Reflection Questions on Water Footprint Activity:

  • What is the difference between water usage and water footprint?
  • How do you think your water footprint compares to the U.S. average and why?
  • Which aspects of the tool are appropriate to your culture and which are not? In what ways might the tool not work in other cultures?
  • Which aspects of your water use would be easiest to alter? What parts would be difficult for you or your community to change and why would it be difficult?
  • Write your personal water use action plan based on insights gained from this activity.

Portfolio Assessment

The outward-facing nature of the students’ StoryMaps seeks to center their personal interest in the topic as motive force for doing quality work throughout the course that they are proud to share, rather than centering a final grade as driving force for intentional participation.

The final StoryMap is composed of smaller products (e.g., data analyses, critical scientific article summaries, maps, photos, reflective essays, concept maps, video clips) that are completed throughout the course. These shorter assignments each align with one or more learning outcomes across foundational, humanistic, and meta knowledge domains and are graded using a rubric. The overall project grade is not assessed solely at the final presentation, but points are awarded based on how students incorporated feedback from both the instructor and peers, through their own reflective assessment of their learning, and in the culminating digital product.


ESRI StoryMaps (not open source): https://storymaps.arcgis.com

Omeka (open source): https://omeka.org (a helpful user guide: https://guides.library.illinois.edu/omeka)

Water quality assessment tool: https://erams.com/wqtool/

Water footprint tool: https://www.watercalculator.org/

National Science Foundation logo

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1935479: Workshop on the Substance of STEM Education. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.