The UIC Freshwater Lab Course
English 440/Public Administration 494/History 481
The Freshwater Lab course puts the pressing issues surrounding the Great Lakes before students and guides their innovative approaches to addressing them. In the Humanities “lab” setting, we study the social and ecological dimensions of the Great Lakes, meet with Great Lakes leaders, visit places where water and people meet, and work on projects to advance existing initiatives and pioneer new approaches. Students are paired with professionals working on issues relevant to their project and Professor Havrelock helps to find avenues for advancing student projects during the semester and beyond.
While we respect and depend upon scientific approaches to the Great Lakes, this Humanities course explores the many ways in which water interacts with socio-political systems, legal structures, cultural perceptions, and artistic visions. Focus also falls on how race, class, and gender determine access to water, exposure to contamination, and participation in the institutions responsible for the region’s water.
Spring 2016 Freshwater Lab Course
Unlike a traditional lecture course, the first 2016 UIC Freshwater Lab Course had 23 students focus on critical Great Lakes issues to deepen their understanding and stimulate innovative thinking about solutions. In a Humanities lab setting, advanced undergraduate and graduate students together studied and discussed social and environmental dimensions of issues, met with leaders (see list below) from the Great Lakes water sector, and visited relevant Chicago area sites of research and policy making. Course readings and class work revolved around the assets and challenges of the Great Lakes basin, including:
- Assets of drinking water, transportation, international border, ecological wonder, commons, recreation, food source, sacred waters, energy; and
- Challenges related to pollution (non-point/point source), delivery, privatization, personal relationship, real estate/access, invasive species, diversions, energy.
Students also worked individually or in groups on capstone projects that they presented at the Student Research Forum on April 14th, 2016, where faculty and professionals responded to their ideas and suggested avenues for further research and development. These student-designed projects either advanced existing initiatives or pioneered new approaches to issues that included:
- invasive species
- combined sewer overflow
- culture along the Chicago River
- the Chicago Lake Michigan beachfront
- the Flint water crisis
- water filtration
- bottled water issues awareness
- lakefront development
- the future of the Calumet Lake Michigan beach
- the impact of animal agriculture on the Great Lakes
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the projects was the variety of innovative ways students found to address issues. For example, writing a children’s book about Asian Carp, creating a digital storytelling site about history and culture along the Chicago River, partnering with the Alliance for the Great Lakes on a blog about Lake Michigan for millennials, designing a water filter with use of a 3D printer, building a chair out of discarded water bottles, and building websites accessed through social media.
The Spring 2016 Freshwater Lab session introduced the first group of students to a Humanities and Social Science driven approach to Great Lakes research. The unfolding water crisis in Flint provided an evolving case study that allowed students to analyze the degree to which the delivery of water is embedded in social and political systems, and to think about how better lines of communication and dissemination of information might prevent such future crises.
Building on this initial success, we have revised and enhanced the curriculum for Fall 2016 by including an emphasis on leadership skills and community engagement.
- J. David Rankin, Program Director at the Great Lakes Protection Fund;
- Kate Koval from the Rebuilding Exchange;
- David Ullrich, Executive Director, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative;
- Aaron Koch, then Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability, City of Chicago Department of Water Management;
- Commissioner Debra Shore, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District;
- Frank Ettawageshik, Chair of the Governing Board of the United League of Indigenous Nations;
- Bakari Baker, US EPA Environmental Health Scientist.
Class field trips brought students to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Shedd Aquarium, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.