Learning to be a Citizen: Water, River, and Community

By Emily Carolin

For the 2017-2018 school year, Baylor launched an exciting set of transdisciplinary courses aimed toward the promotion of human flourishing and the development of innovative approaches to some of the world’s most complex challenges. Under the umbrella of the Social Innovation Collaborative (SIC), Baylor currently has teams of students and faculty collaborating on a wide range of important projects. One of these projects includes the pioneering Water, River, and Community course taught by a wide range of professors from Museum Studies, Economics, Environmental Science, English, Education, and Religion. I was fortunate enough to be one of three Museum Studies graduate students in this course, along with nine other undergraduate students from various disciplines. This unique mix of both professors and students allowed us to delve into a topic from our own backyard.

Water, River, and Community is a problem-based, community-embedded transdisciplinary learning experience that involves students in an exploration of the wicked problem of water. The problems associated with water are difficult to define, without clear solution, socially complex, void of one group who expresses sole responsibility for the problems, and involve many interdependencies. As stated by Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary General, “Water is the classic common property resource. No one really owns the problem. Therefore, no one really owns the solution.” As a class, we undertook the problem of water and in some cases, worked to find a solution, through lectures, field trips, and assignments.

At the start of the semester, we took a canoe trip down the Brazos River in conjunction with reading John Graves Goodbye to a River. While we contentedly paddled down the river, we looked to discover our own natural connection with the river while understanding Graves’ personal love for the Brazos River. We saw turtles, various bird and fish, snakes, and encountered one too many spiderwebs strung across low-hanging branches. We caught and identified tiny fish native and non-native to the Brazos River, while discussing the impact of the Whitney Dam on the aquatic life. We explored the heart of the Brazos River Valley first-hand with wet clothes and slightly sunburnt skin.

One of my personal favorite assignments and activities of the semester included the development of a survey using Contingent Valuation Method (CVM). This economics-based method allowed us to inquire as to our fellow students’ willingness to pay regarding cleaning up and beautifying Waco Creek on Baylor’s campus. Many students complain of the trash in the creek and recognize it as a major eyesore on Baylor’s campus. We developed questions that probed students as to their recycling habits, opinions on landscaping on Baylor campus, and if they choose to recreationally use the areas around Waco Creek. We proposed a one-time $25 increase to student fee and a subsequent $5 increase to install a bandalong trash collection device that would skim the top of the water for trash and adding planters and seating to other areas of Waco Creek. A high majority of students said they would be willing to increase their student fees to clean up Waco Creek for the betterment of the Waco community. In the future, we hope to expand upon this survey to propose a solution to keep Waco Creek clean. Waco Creek is not just important to the Baylor campus but to all Waco residents; and this is only one example of how our class continually connected the health of a community to the health of a river. We depend on a river just as much as the river depends on us.

A final assignment brought local fourth-grade students from Bell’s Hills Elementary School to the Mayborn Museum to learn about their local waterways. My group developed an activity, Can You Undo Pollution? It simulated pollution in a river or creek. We took a metal tub of water and filled it with dirt and trash. Students upon walking up the activity were initially disgusted by the tubs, which was just the reaction we were hoping for! By seeing the damage that littering or polluting local waterways can cause, students can better understand how the actions they take affect the world around them. With strainers and tongs, we asked the students to attempt to remove the dirt and trash from the water. While the trash was removed, much of the dirt continued to swirl in the water showing students that pollution is often irreversible. Students then suggested ways that we could act to stop pollution from happening, including: stop littering, recycle, and throw trash away appropriately. We hope that came away from this activity with a better understanding of how their actions affect the health of a river, which in turn will affect their own health in the future.

While this is only a small glimpse of activities we undertook in the Water, River, and Community, Overall, the course taught me to be more cognizant of my actions and to better appreciate the natural world where we live, while also providing me with a strong background to discuss water policy, ethics, and law. I hope this blog has helped you learn some of the effects that a person can have on a river!


Emily Carolin is a Yankee living the grad school life in the South. She can often be found: devouring books and baked goods, wearing clogs, and wandering in museums. Emily is a graduate student at Baylor University and works at the Mayborn Museum Complex.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

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