TL;DR – The demand for qualified water practitioners will only be met when universities move beyond a single-discipline approach. Water management careers require multi-skilled graduates with technical and research expertise, strong interpersonal skills and the ability to ‘see the big picture’. If post-secondary institutions adapt their approach to meet this demand, graduates will be better equipped to address complex water problems in their future careers.

Students who complete an advanced degree in metallurgy tend to be suitably prepared for a career designing batteries at Duracell or Tesla. Likewise, a four-year nursing degree directly leads to qualifying as a Registered Nurse. But much of our existing water education leaves students woefully underprepared for the multi-faceted challenges facing water conservation and management.

The water problems are deeply complex and “wicked” in the sense that they often cut across political, social and environmental contexts. Solutions to these problems that are merely technical rarely captivate the public imagination and fail at the ballot box. Purely political solutions invariably fall short without strong scientific underpinnings. The complexity of water issues can only be addressed with knowledge that transcends traditional academic boundaries.

The private and public sector employers I’ve spoken with have a long list of skills they are looking for in future hires: a thorough knowledge of water science, critical thinking skills, the ability to manage multi-stakeholder projects and resolve conflicts, and an innate capacity to see ‘the bigger picture’. This is a far broader skill set than is currently provided by the single-discipline degree programs at most post-secondary institutions.

To respond to these changing demands, universities must move beyond traditional lecture-hall education. I propose three characteristics of water education that urgently need to be added to essential technical and research expertise:

Experiential LearningBeyond teaching the latest research methodologies, water education must include hands-on learning. Case studies are valuable to simulate real-world scenarios or cross-cultural situations. But the best experiential learning would be actual water projects with uncertain outcomes; perhaps even the opportunity to fail and learn from that failure. For example, students could work with local water charities to fulfill projects that have real-world implications.

Interdisciplinary Approach – Multi-disciplinary approaches to water management use separate disciplines to address problems. An interdisciplinary approach that combines academic assumptions, perspectives and methods will arrive at a robust analysis from which viable water decisions can be made. As students learn this approach they will find it a transferable skill to future workplace realities.

Team Based – Water is a shared resource and the challenges we face to its use and conservation are not solved in isolation. Working in teams is a necessary part of developing the ‘soft skills’ to resolve real-world issues in the public and private sector.

This type of experiential, interdisciplinary and team-based approach is nothing new in education. Degrees in “environmental sustainability” and “engineering for sustainable development” already draw on these techniques. And there are signs that it is coming to water education. Hegerty et al. (2011) describes a one-semester water course in Australia that integrates methodological skills, sustainability perspectives, tutorials, guest speakers and case studies to connect content in an interdisciplinary manner.

At the same time, most higher education institutions are not conductive to interdisciplinary or experiential programs. Workplace politics, power hierarchies, and the fear of ‘diluting’ disciplinary expertise create strong headwinds. Addressing these challenges involves acknowledging that disciplinary boundaries can restrict the integration of knowledge. Fears of ‘disciplinary dilution’ can also be addressed by upholding the rigorous and repeated use of correct methodology throughout the program.

Our water ecosystems, the health of our rivers and streams, the quality of our drinking water and the security of our supply is now too jeopardized to demand less. Demand for clean water is growing while pollution potential remains high around the world. Our oceans now have more plastic particles than they do fish. Water students intuitively know and quickly see the dramatic effects that pollution and climate change are having on the environment. But beyond the classroom, these future water practitioners are also subject to psychological challenges – including fear and hopelessness – that directly arise from their knowledge. Our aim is to educate a generation that is resilient in the face of uncertainty and skilled enough to transform the inadequate ways water decisions are usually made.

We need a new approach to water education that is equal to the task. A single-disciplinary approach only results in one-dimensional solutions and disillusionment. Unless our pedagogy can match the multi-faceted nature of water problems, we will lose the talented minds that could bring fresh solutions to our world’s water crises.

References and Further Reading:

Firth, P. (1999). The importance of water resources education for the next century. Journal of the American Water Resources Association35(3), 487-492.

Hegarty, K., Thomas, I., Kriewaldt, C., Holdsworth, S., and Bekessy, S. (2011). Insights into the value of a ‘stand-alone’ course for sustainability education. Environmental Education Research17(4), 451-469.

King, C.J. (2010). The Multidisciplinary Imperative in Higher Education. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education.

McBean, E. A., Mitchell, B., and Mulamoottil, G. (1987). Canadian education and research for water resources management. Water International, 12(4), 170-175.

Meganck, R. A. (2010). The role of water education in achieving the millennium development goals. Reviews in Environmental Science and Bio-Technology9(2), 79-80.