Great Lakes, Grand Challenge: Undergrad honors course combines two disciplines and two inspired instructors

“In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water, along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.” --Rachel Carson, The Silent Spring

"We can use our scientific knowledge to improve and beautify the earth, or we can use it to...poison the air, corrupt the waters, blacken the face of the country, and harass our souls with loud and discordant noises, [or]...we can use it to mitigate or abolish all these things." --John Burroughs, 1912

When it comes to environmental issues, most people probably consider scientists to be the thought leaders and change agents. But it is often the world’s great communicators—journalists, essayists, and philosophers, novelists and poets—who succeed in moving society toward shifts in attitude and action that positively impact the environment. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson are among those whose writings have raised awareness about the environmental and conservation challenges that have faced us for decades. 

It is this very notion—the integration of science and the humanities—behind the University’s undergraduate Honors Program course Our Common Waters: Making Sense of the Great Lakes. 

A Bush Foundation grant allowed the University to create honors program courses such as this, which address society’s “grand challenges” and are based on a multi-disciplinary approach. Professor of English Dan Philippon and Environmental Chemistry Professor and former Water Resource Center Co-director Deb Swackhamer created the Our Common Waters course. 

Swackhamer approached Philippon about this team-teaching opportunity. They discussed a variety of possible themes and avenues that would most effectively tap into Philippon’s specialty in environmental humanities—including history, literature, and ethics courses—while complementing Swackhamer’s expertise in science. 

According to the course catalog, the course “seeks to demonstrate how solving environmental problems in the region will require not only science and technology, but also individual action and public policy that is consistent with the ethics and values of society.” 

Our Common Waters emphasizes water in nature and society—the chemical, ecological, and geological aspects of the Great Lakes as well as their history, economic ramifications, cultural contributions, and the laws and regulations that impact them. “The class discussion includes global water crises and moves onto water issues in the U.S., then hones in on the upper Midwest,” Phillipon explains. “Once on the shores of the Great Lakes, we look at the impact of the lakes on native culture, European settlement, and modern attitudes toward resource exploitation and commerce. “

The course has attracted students from a wide range of majors, including design, liberal arts, agriculture, and physics. Last spring, Our Common Waters got the attention of University Honors Program freshman Kristen Anderson. Anderson, who hails from Red Wing, was lured by its class size and rigorous academic syllabus, field trips and creative writing assignments, and emphasis on environmental issues. 

Now a second-year political science major with a focus on environmental policy and advocacy, Anderson credits the course with shaping her academic decisions and inspiring her extracurricular involvement as legislative staffer with the Minnesota Student Association. 

“The class melded history, economics, ecology, policy, and culture and gave me a great foundation for all the interconnections between public policy and environmental advocacy,” says Anderson, who plans to study environmental policy in Germany this fall. 
Part of the students’ grade is to develop an action plan for solving a “grand challenge” related to water. These have included a plan to reverse the flow of the Chicago River and modeling the frequency of shipwrecks.

For professors Philippon and Swackhamer, the success of this class is a “grand challenge” they fully embrace. “Professors Deb and Dan are a dynamite, dedicated team—they’re genuine and supportive, and they care passionately about each other's area of expertise,” says Anderson. Philippon says teaching the course with Swackhamer has been “a fantastic experience.” 

“The only way we’re going to solve environmental issues is by recognizing the human components in addition to understanding the science and technology,” Philippon says. “It takes scientists and nonscientists to create an atmosphere of social change. This course is as much about applied sciences as it is applied humanities.”

Class at the Blue Heron