Is Water the New Oil?

Before I took the water course I thought that water was a thing we would have forever. Now…I know that we should be careful of how we use clean water and we should not just throw it about. I also think that other schools should be teaching this important topic because we are the next generation and we should know what important topics are coming our way. (from a student’s reflection)

At the end of last school year, during one of our middle school division meetings, conversation turned to water. Unfortunately, not in anticipation of summer fun, but rather as a resource that was in jeopardy to the extent that it might become as valuable a commodity as oil.

The teachers began to imagine the question of water being as valuable as oil– and constructing a series of learning activities to bring this huge topic to our students.

We had several goals.. Thinking about water as a commodity is different from much of what is usually taught about water. Our science program uses water as a focus, and students grow to have a healthy respect for water being vulnerable, along with the organisms that live in and near it. At the same time, the usual way to teach water is as a renewable resource. Oil, though, is not renewable, so one of the concepts that we wanted students to wrestle with, was, can water be polluted or the cycle disrupted so much, that in some parts of the world, it is not able to be renewed?

The contemplation of such a question can be quite grim. One of the core principles, as we teach serious subjects to middle school students, is that we also deliberately insert hope. So, we wanted to make sure that solutions were part of the learning experiences for this topic– and that where possible, the students would be coming up with solutions as well as learning about the solutions others had designed.

With all of this in mind, we set aside three school days, using our “Day D,” intensive study time, to tackle the essential question, “Is Water the New Oil?” We strived for a middle school appropriate “conference” atmosphere, starting with  a plenary session with keynote (given by me) that outlined some of the 21st century water concerns.

Beginning with the keynote was an important decision as the teachers designed the learning environment, because it gave students and faculty a common experience, and laid out the changes in the way water would be thought of for the rest of our work together. Some of the major points:

  1. Water is not named as a universal right in the original United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it since has been acknowledged as one by the UN.
  2. Even in the USA, people do not always have access to water. The case example was the recent water turn offs in the city of Detroit.
  3. Water can be owned privately, but this can disrupt water.
  4. Water resources can be depleted, and aquifers are especially vulnerable. The aquifers of Saudi Arabia were the case study for this.

After hearing the keynote, students rotated through a short introduction from each teacher, in order that the students might make a decision about which breakout workshop they wanted to participate in.

The teachers offered:

Global Water Solutions: to look at other countries and build models or presentations about solutions that are providing water

Water on the Web: to establish a blog that would document our entire “conference” and connect to others

Clean me, Move me, Slow me down: To engineer ways to move water, filter water, or abate runoff

Empathetic Connections: to understand what it is like to live where you cannot take water for granted, and to write letters to people who might help make water available

Debating Privatization: to research both sides of the privatization issue and debate the pros and cons in front of an audience

Visualizing Water: to use models and simulations to show where water is used, by individuals and by manufacturing and agriculture

Once in a workshop, students got busy. With the equivalent of about two school days, they learned, built and most importantly, figured out how to teach those who were in different workshops.

On the last afternoon, we set the classrooms of the MSLC up as a gallery, displaying work from most of the workshops. Half the students were the audience and half were docents; then they switched. As an audience, students engaged with the classmates who were docents, and students answered guided questions designed for each workshop. It was clear, that had all the adults melted away, the learning would have continued for a while before the students noticed. Every moment was focused on students teaching other students.

We concluded our day with a closing plenary session, The Water on the Web workshop presented the blog to the rest of the middle school, and included a very moving film made by one student, who tried to carry water for a distance, the way that many people have to each day. You can see the film and the rest of the blog, here.

Finally, the Debating Privatization workshop, argued both sides, in front of their peers. We finished the day with time for individual reflection, done in writing, in every advisory group. The advisors were impressed with how focused the students were when reflecting. The students’ statements are moving, serious and thoughtful. For example:

I don’t thing the world considers water a human right (but I do). To consider water a human right it means that it’s for everyone and everyone should get clean water and no one should be left with none. If water was a basic human right then maybe what’s going on in the world right now would not be happening.


Water is generally thought of to be one of our more abundant natural resources in that it does that whole thing where it rains, then there is water on the ground, then it rains again, and this whole cycle is supposed to keep water from ever running out. The thing is, water doesn’t replenish quickly enough for us to keep wasting it at the rate we do. There is actually a lot of water in the world, it’s just it’s dirty or salty or something. Plus, water is badly managed. We Americans use way more water than we need…

You can see more photos of these “water” days on Twitter, using #MSPDS and #H2O4WORLD. It was not possible to capture every moment in photos, but here are a few highlights:

A final thought: We were ambitious when we conceived of and designed this program. We respected the students and also planned ways to make the topic understandable and hopeful for them. They, in turn, earned our respect and our enthusiasm for their engagement and transparent learning.

Cheers to all the students and their teachers!




This entry was posted in Learning is active..., Learning is deep..., Learning is deliberate..., Learning is empathetic, Learning is permeable..., Learning is playful..., Learning is relevant, Learning is self-correcting, Learning is social..., Uncategorized, Values Connection, Values Contribution, Values Courage, Values Creativity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is Water the New Oil?

  1. Karen says:

    Stewards of the future of an important issue!


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