GPS Sustainability Fellows Explore Water Management Issues in Workshop
By Tara Laskowski
It was a course of many firsts.
For George Mason University, it was the first official workshop of the Global Problem-Solving (GPS) Consortium and an idea, an experiment, came to fruition for Provost Peter Stearns. For several of the international students coming to Mason, it was their first time in the United States, their first time flying on a plane, their first time canoeing or tubing, or sampling water from other countries.
And yet within all these firsts came a lot of learning and a lot of perspective.
Founded in 2012 by Provost Stearns, the GPS Consortium is a distinctive partnership among eight global universities, representing almost every continent, who have pledged to work together to create academic programs focused on presenting regional approaches and solutions to pressing global issues.
The group first met at Mason last year for a three-day inaugural conference, during which they laid the groundwork for future discussions, workshops, and teaching opportunities.
The workshop last month was the first GPS gathering since that initial meeting and included undergraduate students from each of the prestigious international universities in the consortium, representing the countries of Brazil, China, India, Kenya, Korea, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. The eight students each received a fellowship to travel and attend the workshop, and were joined by a group of Mason students taking the class in the summer session. Led by Mason environmental science and policy professor Dann Sklarew, the group focused on water management and sustainability, an issue identified by nearly every country as one of great concern.
From sampling bottled water from around the world to touring local watersheds, the students were immersed in all areas of water management and shared their own perspectives and problems from their homeland.
Alfred Murerwa, a fellow from Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, was particularly interested in issues of resource planning. “I am aware of the many challenges facing water resources in my country, specifically with pollution of the Nairobi River. I wanted to learn about the many ways that people have dealt with water problems in different countries,” he says.
The students took several field trips to explore water management in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and met both formally and informally with a variety of experts in the field of water management and environmental sustainability. They toured the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, had a live video chat in Mason’s Telepresence room with a scholar from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics on Russia’s water challenges, listened to Mason experts give presentations on their research, and broke into groups to work on specific case studies.
“They were moving around a lot, experiencing new things, and meeting lots of people,” says Sklarew. “Each of them was chosen for their experiences and expertise in some area of water management. So we were excited to see what would happen when they all came together to talk.”
Provost Stearns also led a lively lunch discussion exploring the fundamental human right to water. “Mason’s summer programs focused on human rights this year,” notes Sklarew, “So Dr. Stearns challenged our students to consider whether an America-oriented solution could be globally applicable to the hundreds of millions still without access to clean water.”
“A very useful and important aspect of this workshop was that it brought students and their experience from different parts of the world together at the same platform,” says Mayank Jain, a fellow from the Cluster Innovation Centre of the University of Delhi in India. “Most surprising, for me, was the fact that even the [USA], so-called most developed country, is not able to control water pollution due to industries.”
For Mason’s GPS fellow, Lindsey Denny, this course was a way to “study abroad” domestically. Being surrounded by other fellows from so many different countries offered her a different perspective on things and gave her the opportunity to learn about bodies of water and water issues that she would have never even heard about otherwise.
It also offered her a new perspective on her own university and city. “I was very eager to serve as an unofficial tour guide for the international fellows,” she says. “We truly maximized our time together and I got to do and see things within the Washington metro area that I hadn’t yet managed to in my four years here.”
It wasn’t all learning—fellows were treated to fireworks on the Fourth of July, picnic barbeques, tubing on the Potomac River, and canoeing on the Occoquan River. Jain says he enjoyed the inclusion of fun activities in the learning process. “We canoed to learn about wildlife changes in water due to human activities. Learning through these methods is actually the most effective learning.”
R. Paul Gray, a managing member of the Potomac Management Group LLC, George Mason University Foundation board member, and the chair of the E4 Foundation that funded the workshop, was very excited about bringing together students for this global perspective. “These are our future leaders—they are the ambassadors of the future,” he says. “These are the kinds of projects I like to support, projects that inspire and encourage.”
The GPS Consortium plans to host a workshop each year at a different university around the globe. Next year, the consortium will send students to Moscow to learn about global food security.
“I believe we do better as a global society if we challenge our own assumptions and listen to other people,” says Stearns.
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