How the Pilots Took Flight

By Dennis Nelson

Editor’s note: Project WET founder Dennis Nelson has announced his retirement as President and CEO of the Project WET Foundation. After more than 35 years in water education, he is writing a series of articles reflecting on the people, places and experiences that have made Project WET an outstanding program.

The original Project WET Guide was a three-ring binder filled with locally adapted activities and lots of reference information specific to state water resourcesThe original Project WET Guide was a three-ring binder filled with locally adapted activities and lots of reference information specific to state water resources There are many factors that go into taking an idea and replicating it in distant and diverse places. In gardening terms, the North Dakota State Water Commission created, planted and germinated the Project WET seed. Montana State University (MSU), with vision and entrepreneurial spirit, grew the seed to maturity, harvested and replanted it in three new pilot locations: Montana, Idaho and Arizona. A planning grant from the Great Plains Region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and additional financial contributions from the Montana Department of Natural Resources, Montana’s lead water resources management agency, made the pilot possible. Beyond financial support, both agencies contributed significant water resources management content expertise, got deeply involved in making connections with key people and organizations and provided a range of administrative and organizational support.

This is a tribute to the people and organizations that saw value in Project WET and funded the pilot project to prove it. The 1989-1992 pilot helped document and report successes and challenges to agency leaders, mainly to determine if Project WET was a relevant, useful, worthwhile, viable and replicable endeavor. The lessons learned in North Dakota and the three other pilot states gave Project WET a great foundation for moving forward, setting the stage for national expansion. 

The goal of the two-year, three-state pilot program was to replicate North Dakota’s Project WET in the three states and to develop a complementary program to educate adult stakeholders on high-priority topics. The original name of the project was The WaterCourse (formerly Western WaterCourse), the umbrella organization for the state Project WET and WaterCourse programs launching.

The state WaterCourse pilot projects had mixed results and success. Montana was the only state to successfully develop and deliver a program. It is still in operation today at the Montana Water Resources Research Center on the MSU campus under its original name, Montana WaterCourse. Competition with other state organizations for limited resources, sustained funding and the reality of changing administrations, agency heads and priorities made sustaining WaterCourse programs difficult. Nevertheless the Montana WaterCourse, while under the leadership of Associate Director Susan Higgins and Mary Ellen Wolfe, the second coordinator of the state program, successfully tackled some of Montana’s most pressing water management challenges, including water rights, inter-basin water disputes, riparian zone management and many other locally relevant topics. Susan and Mary Ellen understood the value of educating laypeople—Montana citizens—about basic water science, and they had an extraordinary ability to take complex water topics and make them understandable to everyone. 

On the other hand, the Project WET pilot test was very successful, generating significant interest and momentum in each state. I credit the leaders and staff of our state partners for this success: They had the connections and people skills necessary to move the idea of Project WET toward development and activation. I would like to recognize the leaders and state coordinators from each state: Dr. Hana Cortner and coordinators Larry Sullivan and Lin Stevens-Moore from Arizona; Dr. Roy Mink and coordinators Karla Falter and Dottie Kunz Shuman from Idaho; and Dr. Howard Peavy and coordinator Gina Morrison from Montana. All the pilot state coordinators were housed by and worked at their respective state Water Resources Research Centers.

As in North Dakota, water was a priority to each state, and the Centers and other partnering groups saw value in training educators to teach children and youth about their state’s water and its use, management and protection. However, success also required real demand, along with perseverance, dedication, solid administrative support and funding. The pilot states had all these characteristics.

After working with our local partners, we established formal working relationships and gave each state their own identity – Montana Project WET, Idaho Project WET and Arizona Project WET. This may seem minor, but the local identity was then and remains to this day of great importance to our local partners and their work. The first task in each pilot state was to rewrite the original set of activities created in North Dakota and make the information relevant to Montana, Idaho and Arizona. It was during the localization process that we discovered the teaching methods, all unique to each activity, needed very little rewriting. They worked as-is for the educators with a few local tweaks.

The pilot confirmed that educators in the pilot states were able to relate to and understand the activities, use the teaching methods with students and, most importantly, document student learning. This finding was a major milestone in Project WET’s development and key to the program’s preparation for scaling up. We also learned that our technical colleagues in water sciences and management were eager to help write the background information necessary to localize the activities.

The pilot state coordinators formed advisory councils consisting of state and local water and education leaders. The councils helped guide the coordinators’ work and, by virtue of the council members’ standing in water and education, added essential credibility to the pilot efforts. The pilot states focused most of their work on designing and conducting six-hour or longer Project WET workshops for K-12 educators. One important incentive for teacher participation in the workshops was university credit. Although the workshops were advertised as Project WET, the transcript course title was Teaching Strategies for Water Resources Education.

One of the original binders used during the Project WET pilot in the early 1990sOne of the original binders used during the Project WET pilot in the early 1990s As with Project WET workshops around the world today, the workshop coordinator gave participants a Project WET Activity Guide. At that time, however, there was no book. Rather, a large red three-ring binder was filled with the locally adapted activities and lots of reference information specific to state water resources. Since there was no Internet, we packed the binders with any and all relevant information that a teacher might need to use the activities.

Over the course of the pilot, the results of the workshops were collected, analyzed and reported widely to state, local and federal water agencies and organizations to begin the process of letting key people know about the project. A project leadership team was assembled. BOR representatives, pilot state partners and staff began to investigate next steps, should an opportunity be presented. The pilot had proven Project WET could be scaled, but we had to change our thinking and approach.

Luckily, I already had a blueprint for scaling up. My colleague and good friend Dave Jensen, the coordinator of Project WILD Aquatic at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, knew what we needed to do based on his experiences. On the back of a placemat during a breakfast meeting in a Bismarck restaurant, he outlined the plan. He said that Project WET needed a single, comprehensive, published guide with many more activities than the three-ringed binder version we were using. We also needed to address a wider range of water topics. Above all, he said, we needed to publish and professionally print the guide. The arduous process of individually preparing three-ringed binders was inefficient and not realistic for distribution to large numbers of people. It all seemed simple on the placemat, but the list of things that needed to happen was long and complex—not to mention expensive! Moreover, and quite frankly, it was also far beyond the interests and resources of a state agency. Nevertheless, Dave’s information planted another seed and served as a goal for the future. The question was how we could make it a reality.  

The administration of George H. W. Bush contributed to the success of Project WETShortly after forming the leadership team at MSU and near the end of the pilot project, I was asked to meet with the Dennis Underwood, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, and Dee Kuhn, the Chief of Public Affairs in the Commissioner’s office. (I discussed this fateful meeting with the Commissioner in a tribute to George H.W. Bush following his passing in 2018.) It is worth noting that Dee Kuhn had once been a classroom teacher, and she completely embraced the idea of Project WET and the importance of education. Dee’s endorsement, the success of the pilot, Commissioner Underwood’s extensive water management experience and, as I learned later, his deep commitment to a water-literate citizenry made his decision to support the national project happen.   

In 1992, given the green light by Commissioner Underwood, a three-year proposal seeking $1.25 million was developed and submitted. The BOR funded the proposal, and the national expansion of Project WET commenced in 1992. The proposal had three parts. Our first task was to publish a comprehensive set of original water education activities. The Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide 1.0 was published through an extensive national development process involving peer nominated water and education experts from every state—we called them “Crew Members”. The second deliverable was the establishment of a national network of state partners to add to North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Arizona. The national network was to be called Project WET USA.

By the time the Guide was published and ready for distribution, every state in the country had a state Project WET program that was ready to start conducting Project WET workshops. We accomplished this by making sure we invited Crew Members with proven interest in water education, respect from peers, local connections and leadership skills. The final deliverable was to use the Guide and network establishment process to establish a national culture and platform in support of water education. We aggressively engaged water agencies and organizations to inform them about Project WET and our plans. The stage was set for national implementation. The pilots had gone above and beyond to make an indelible contribution to Project WET’s journey.

Project WET Founder, President and CEO Dennis NelsonDennis Nelson founded Project WET in 1984 while working at the North Dakota State Water Commission. Through extensive partnerships and successful fundraising efforts, he developed the program into a global leader in water resources education in more than 70 countries worldwide.

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