Project WET: Teachers Strengthen Conservation Culture
By Warren Tenney
Students who participate in Arizona Project WET programs get wet and dirty exploring river bottoms and wetlands. They learn a little about plumbing and irrigation systems and understand where water comes from and why it’s a precious resource. University of Arizona’s Project WET helps to strengthen the state’s conservation culture among future generations while teaching kids science, technology, engineering and math (educators call these STEM subjects). At its core, Arizona Project WET is a UA professional-development program for teachers. The program has given 11,150 Arizona teachers the knowledge and strategies they need to bring water education to their classrooms.
In 2006, Gilbert Public Schools teacher Sherry Brown spent two weeks of continuing education training at Biosphere 2 near Tucson. Sherry then opted to spend another five days at an Arizona Project WET Academy, which included two and half days exploring the Hassayampa River Preserve near Wickenburg northwest of Phoenix. Ever since that training, Sherry has taught Arizona Project WET units each year to her sixth graders at Finley Farms Elementary School. Sherry said the lessons are particularly popular with her students because they are about real, tangible, relevant topics happening around them.
“When I grew up, science was in a book,” Sherry said. “So I had very little confidence in myself and my place in science.” Sherry has attended two more academies since her first and each time she takes away something new and worthwhile to add to her lessons. Sherry said Arizona Project WET academies are extremely organized programs that give teachers the strategies, lesson plans and confidence to implement programs immediately. She calls them “very neatly wrapped packages.”
Arizona Project WET’s Aqua STEM Program is a project-based learning program with a hook to a child’s immediate world and imagination. Arizona Project WET students and their teachers have audited school faucets for leaks and determined if the irrigation systems used on their football fields are wasting water. They have contoured the landscape of their campuses to harvest more rainwater. Students have trained as junior soil scientists, aquatic-biologists, hydrologists and zoologists and examined local wetlands to report on their health and sustainability.
In its first years, Arizona Project WET evolved to integrated science, technology, engineering and math throughout its rich content. In the last 10 years, the curriculum has evolved further by encouraging a more sophisticated “critical thinking” or “systems thinking” teaching method. This method moves beyond asking students questions with one right answer. Instead, it encourages students to think deeper about a topic and examine it from many sides until they find their own, multi-faceted answers. Here’s a simple example:
- What is a river and what is a river not? The dictionary answer is that a river is a flowing stream of water. So, is the dry Salt River running through the Valley really a river?
- What are the parts of a river? It’s not just flowing water but also a sandy and rocky river-bottom, plants and animal habitats, ponds, groundwater and seeps.
- What is a river part of? It’s part of a watershed and can be part of a canal system and a water management system.
- What is the relationship of a river to your drinking system?
- What is a river to a farmer, a family, a river rafter, a deer or a fish?
A one-day workshop in systems thinking instruction is a prerequisite for teachers who want to attend other Arizona Project WET Aqua STEM academies, which run from two to five days. Academy topics include Riparian Habitat Exploration, Rainwater Harvesting, School Water Audits, and Water Resources Management. All the courses feature engineering design process. The professional development courses count toward teachers’ continuing education credits.
Sherry credits her 2006 summer of science and her Arizona Project WET training for making her a more confident science teacher and a better citizen who is more engaged in learning about the environment. She attends presentations, films and classes offered by Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability. She now uses water and other environmental issues in all the subjects she teaches her sixth graders, including math, reading and writing. “I wouldn’t have done all this without taking this class,” Sherry said about Arizona Project WET. “It has really meant that much to me.”
For 49 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.