This semester Assistant Professor Emily Kumpel of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and Associate Professor Anita Milman of the Department of Environmental Conservation are teaching a groundbreaking service-learning class focusing on “Potable Water for Small and Disadvantaged Communities.” As Kumpel explains about this collaborative course, “We hope that students learn that the challenges small community water systems face require knowledge and skills from many different disciplines,” explains Kumpel.
According to Kumpel, those challenges “encompass a range of technical, financial, and social challenges to make a public water service continue to operate. We hope students learn to work with those outside their disciplines in the future and understand it takes many different types of knowledge to solve challenges.”
As Milman summarizes what she hopes to achieve with this multidisciplinary course: “We have two primary objectives. The first is that, outside of academia, disciplines are not relevant – problems are. Problems are multifaceted and we want students to be able to understand and integrate the full the range of factors that influence, constrain, and drive solutions.”
“The second [objective],” Milman continues, “is that provision of potable water is an ongoing challenge that affects the lives of millions of people within the USA and billions around the world. We want to raise awareness of this problem and stir an interest in students in taking on the challenge.”
As Kumpel and Milman explain in their course description, “In this course, we examine all aspects of the provision of water in rural and disadvantaged communities, from the physical process of conveying and treating water to the economics of paying for infrastructure and operations to the social and political interactions between towns, regulators, and private citizens. Interdisciplinary teams of students then apply this knowledge to make recommendations as to how to address problems from a specific nearby public water system.”
In addition to the problem-based learning activities, as Kumpel and Milman say, students hear from practitioners in the field, including learning about case studies of innovations and actions taken by entities such as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and environmental-justice advocates to address the challenge of public supply.
Kumpel says that “Small water systems face particular challenges due to their lack of economies of scale, sometimes remote locations, and lack of resources. We hope students know in their future careers that these communities will need different technologies and approaches than larger systems.”
As part of the course, Kumpel and Milman developed partnerships with four small towns in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Students work on a “semester-long project” with community members to examine and make recommendations on water-supply challenges identified by those communities. Through this experience, students are learning what it will be like in the professional world as consultants working to support small systems. They are also learning how to manage and deliver a large, complex, semester-long project, and communicate professionally.
Each project will involve: documenting the system and its challenges based on existing records at the state offices and community files; identifying the key stakeholders; holding socially distanced, on-site, or video meetings with those key stakeholders; developing a preliminary report on the system needs, problems, and solutions already proposed by the stakeholders; producing a plan and report, including proposals for new, alternative solutions to the identified problems.
Both instructors conduct long-term, in-depth research that is integrated into the course.
As Kumpel says about her research lab, “We conduct research using interdisciplinary approaches to understand the complex engineered, environmental, and human systems to enable the provision of safe, reliable, and sustainable drinking water and sanitation services.”
Meanwhile, as Milman explains, “I research environmental governance, with a focus on water. We cannot develop sustainable, equitable practices for water management without understanding how institutional structures, multiple actors, and human interests and understandings come together to influence action.” (November 2020)