Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Interdisciplinary, Intercultural Approach to Water

Pretty exciting that I was just this morning asked to give a plenary lecture at a second conference in Sri Lanka this fall. It's exactly the kind of opportunity the Fulbright gives you. Get in there and try your hand at what you'd like to do.

And what I like to do, a lot, is teaching. In my practice at Boston University I've introduced a constructivist, phenomenological approach to my science courses, where students set the pace of learning while choosing their topics and experiencing the natural world first-hand. I designed my courses in this way for a number of reasons. But the most important I think, is that students have been tested and tested and tested just to get into a good university. By the time they reach college they've forgotten about how to discover, how to observe something closely for its own sake, how to develop questions, and how to have fun.

Turns out in my recent trips to Sri Lanka and Portugal, my colleagues reflected on this phenomenon from their viewpoint. It kind of surprised me. I expected people outside of my small circle to be much more concerned with content, seemingly rigorous assessment, and classroom decorum.

So, in my second role as plenary speaker at the University of Kelanyia in Sri Lanka (my first invitation is from South East University in Kalmunai), I will talk about play, exploration, reflection, and how we develop questions--all in the context of water.

Water, that amazing, ubiquitous, sustaining, endangered substance that fills and defines our living world. Water, a world resource that's under siege, unfairly distributed, and improperly used. Water, abundant and scarce, in need of stewardship, protection, and care. 

It sounds strange but just like what I found out about teaching, these same water problems exist all over the world. In the United States and most of the developed world, we approach water as a commodity to be extracted. Because it arrives to our kitchen sinks and bathroom toilets from some unknown, remote place--is something we take for granted. Because it was subject to massive extraction our food producers use it massively for irrigation. The way we live depends on the way we obtain and distribute water. It also depends on abundant fresh water. Thanks to overuse, climate change, and finite quantities of the substance, our way of life is not sustainable.

Flash back to rural Sri Lanka where water was harnessed, not extracted, starting some 2500 years ago. Tens of thousands of human-built irrigation lakes (called "tanks") dot the landscape and delight the traveler with a shimmering beauty that covers the surface of the Dry Zone. Rural farmers have used these waters for irrigating their rice for ages. The tanks and the culture that embodies them also are in danger. Increasingly, individuals are installing tube wells for their own use. The tube wells, just like our wells here in the States, deplete the water table. That water table nourishes the tanks and is supported by the water they collect. So they are endangered, as is a way of life.

What does this have to do with teaching? I'm about to find out what it's like to take Sri Lankan students into the field. With generous support from the Fulbright and my colleagues at Rajarata University we will have a chance to explore dry tank beds to see how they are formed and how they work. Students will discover this with our supervision as they explore angles, colors, depths, and other intangibles of the tank bottom landscape.

Right now I don't know how many students it will be or how the logistics will go. But I was just asked to stay in Rajarata for another week. So plans are being made. We're also trying to get a videographer in to record the work. I'm unusually chill about the whole thing, which I expect can just as easily melt into nothing by the time I get to Rajarata next week. And the rains may start early, which can also wash out our plans. We'll see how everything plays out. Then I can report our work in Kalmunai and Kelanyia as I gain new insights into an interdisciplinary, intercultural approach to water.

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