By Dennis Nelson
Editor’s note: Project WET founder Dennis Nelson recently announced that he is retiring 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.
This is a tribute the people we call Crew Members, an amazing group of educators, scientists and water managers who joined us in developing the original Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide in a series of workshops held in 1992 and 1993.
One thing we wanted to avoid in the process was creative and geographic isolation. We didn’t want to rely on a few talented researchers and writers sitting in offices, creating lessons and publishing them for national use and distribution, with little external input. Instead, our approach was inclusive, multi-disciplinary, geographically representative, somewhat messy and always exciting. “It takes a village” best describes our attitude, intent and organizational culture during the metamorphosis from pilot to bona fide national organization. With the help of thousands of people, we succeeded in meeting this awesome challenge.
The selection of Crew Members was deliberate and time consuming. Our goal was to have participation from every state, and we accomplished this. Crew Members couldn’t nominate themselves. They had to be nominated by peers. We wanted team players who were well respected and active in water education. Moreover, they had to be available to attend a four-day writing workshop. We surveyed the states for candidates, asking a simple question to water, conservation and environment agencies, educational institutions and other groups: “Based on the people you know in your state, who has to be at this workshop?”
The responses helped us see patterns, since most Crew Members were recommended more than once. Nominated Crew Members provided a brief bio and explanation for why they wanted to be involved. We were overwhelmed by the number of candidates, a clear signal of interest in water—and the need for a national water education program.
In the end, we planned and conducted eight regional writing workshops in less than a year for 283 Crew Members. The workshop coordinators and their locations were Kathy Sevebeck (Smith Lake, VA) Linda Hveem (Custer State Park, SD and Hillsdale, MI) Warren Tomkiewicz (Woods Hole, ME), Everett Jesse and Gini Mitchell (Las Vegas, NV), Roy King (Blackwater, FL), Dan Sebert and Brenda Weiser (Red Rock, OK) and Steve Andrews and Lin Howell (Corbett, Oregon).
The writing workshops were designed to create original teaching methods for publication in the Project WET Guide. Our writing rules were simple: The methods had to be unique and original. I’ve often said that what sets Project WET materials apart from others is that we’re not a “cover band”. We don’t play other people’s music. We create our own “music”—which in our case are our hands-on learning methods for explaining complicated water concepts to audiences of all ages and backgrounds. We set the bar high, and Crew Members responded. Above all, we wanted to use the talents of the best, brightest and most enthusiastic educators to dig deep and be creative—and they embraced that opportunity.
Project WET created a “conceptual framework”—the basis of what we now know as Project WET’s Water Literacy Principles—to help organize the work. Staff member Michael Brody led the research and development of the framework with input from hundreds of external water and education experts. After significant deliberation and drafts, we settled on the following framework:
2. Water has unique physical and chemical characteristics
3. Water is essential for all life to exist
4. Water connects all Earth systems
5. Water is a natural resource
6. Water resources are managed
7. Water resources exist within social constructs
8. Water resources exist within cultural constructs.
We created teaching methods for each conceptual category. If a topic didn’t fit in one of the eight conceptual areas, it would not be included in the guide.
Staff spent a great deal of time, energy and thought in designing the writing workshop agendas. First, we were investing in bringing the participants together and we wanted to maximize outputs. Second, we wanted the workshops to be great professional experiences for participants, and we wanted everyone to be proud of their time invested. Our hope was that people leaving their workshop would say, “I contributed, made a difference and my fingerprints are on the guide, forever.” Finally, we wanted the participants to be so inspired and motivated by the experience they would go back to their states and help in the identification and selection of state sponsors, the organizations that would conduct school and community workshops for educators using the new Guide.
I have heard many people say that the writing workshops were some of the most rewarding professional experiences they have ever had. Indeed, how often do people get the opportunity to be unshackled in their creativity? We did everything we could to encouraged Crew Members to push the creative envelop, making safe spaces for all ideas to be shared and to think freely about ways to teach a topic. This attitude unlocked some amazing ideas.
The workshops took four days, and most of the workshops had around 40 participants. Crew Members didn’t always know the other people from their state, and they almost certainly they didn’t know participants from other states in the region. We knew upfront that part of our success would be getting off to a positive, upbeat and welcoming start. We wanted all Crew Members to leave their titles, positions and past accolades at the door to enter the workshop on equal footing with others.
Each writing workshop agenda followed the same general format and, as much as we could, we took advantage of the unique land and water resources of workshop sites. We ate salmon in the Northwest region as we viewed the great Columbia River below. The Northeastern participants clog-danced with the locals and learned about cutting edge deep-sea research at Woods Hole.
Every workshop started with participants making their own rainstick as an ice breaker. Staff had created an activity about rainsticks and how to make one to use in modeling the characteristics of a great activity. This was done to help participants focus on water and to open their minds to thinking broadly about water. Every rainstick was unique, and we emphasized, every Crew Member was unique too. Each person took their own rainstick home as a memento.
However, our interest went far beyond the act of creating a rainstick. We knew we would have a range of personality types at the workshops, and we wanted everyone to be comfortable and fit in in their own unique way. This socializing strategy worked perfectly. We had science, technology, music, art, math and English teachers and scientists at the workshops, and we did everything possible to encourage diverse writing teams. Our goal was to avoid clusters of hydrologists, engineers or art teachers working together on a method. We knew diversity would encourage new thinking and possibly some out-of-the-box ideas, so we created a method called Idea Pools to facilitate diversity, expedite group formation and to frame writing cycles.
Idea Pools was one of the most important strategies employed in the creation of the Project WET Guide. We had limited time and needed to start writing activities as soon in the workshop as possible. Idea Pools helped prioritize topics for individual members and, eventually, writing groups. Participants were asked to list in priority order the three most important water topics based on where they live, life experiences, education, work and local water situations. On a note card, they included their name, priority number, a brief description about the water topic, and, when possible, ideas for teaching methods.
Forty participants created 120 individual notecards. Those were collected, analyzed and put into groups—or as we call them, Idea Pools. Participants were given an opportunity to move their cards to new groups that better reflected their interests, and then the first round of writing groups were formed.
This process involved a participant saying their group would be developing an activity on watersheds. People interested in the topic would join the watershed group and then the process would be repeated until every person was in a group.
Each group was challenged to sketch out an activity and describe what they wanted students to learn and how they would learn it – the teaching method. We learned early in the workshop process that without guidance, groups tended to spend an inordinate amount of time writing background information and didn’t spend time on methods—that is, how to teach the topic. We would remind them that an activity without a teaching method isn’t an activity.
Our popular Sum of the Parts activity is a good example of how some methods emerged. The idea for Sum of the Parts was advanced at the Southeast writing workshop, which was conducted at the Blackwater State Forest in Florida. Water quality issues were an important topic in the region and were therefore a priority at the workshop. After several rounds of groups working on activity ideas, a teacher said she had an idea she wanted to try with the group. She asked the participants to line up side-by-side, stretching out across the room. Each participant was asked to pick one item such as a pen or scrap of paper. The person at the end of the line, headwaters of the river, was asked to hand the item to the next person and this process of handing, holding and passing along continued to the other end of the river. The activity was simple and worked perfectly. As the items were passed along, the pile grew larger and larger and participants had a difficult time holding them. The message was clear: People living along rivers and the land in the watershed contributing water to the river need to do everything they can to protect downstream neighbors from pollution. Of course, the visual and the excitement of everyone participating led to a discussion about what people can do to reduce pollution.
We learned that many workshop participants still had ideas for activities when the time had expired for forming formal groups, so we created short “Quick Write” sessions at the end of the workshop. Quick Writes were just a post card with topic, name of participant and a brief idea for a method. This turned out to be very productive. Numerous Quick Write ideas eventually made it into in the Guide.
Crew Members at the eight writing workshops produced over 750 activity ideas ranging from a clever, one-sentence method contributed in a Quick Write to nearly complete methods created by groups. At the end of each workshop, staff collected activity ideas, analyzed them and inserted them in most relevant conceptual framework.
There isn’t one activity in the Project WET Guide—the first one or Guide 2.0—that was written by one person, including me. I estimate that every activity had dozens of “fingerprints” when they were first published, and when educators use them, they add in their own modifications and local knowledge.
We learned a great deal in the activity development process. We reminded participants to write the activity as if they would be using it, but to do so in a way that a person far away could understand and use it. An activity needs to be concise and easily replicated with affordable, realistic supplies and materials that are available to most people. We would joke that if you need a water buffalo to do the activity, no one would do it! We also learned that a great teaching method could be easily used. I often said I knew an activity idea was good because I could imagine using it with a group of teachers or students the next day and having an excellent educational experience. After decades of creating and developing water teaching methods, I still believe this is true.
The people selected to be Crew Members received a special lifelong designation as such, and that designation still means something—even 25 years later. I was recently reminded of the lasting value of Crew Members during a presentation I did at the annual WateReuse Symposium. When I asked people familiar with Project WET to raise their hands, numerous people did so. One kept her hand up, and then I recognized her. She stated with pride, “I’m a Project WET Crew Member!”
Dennis 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.