Don’t Miss the Boat on Water’s Interdisciplinary Lessons

Under water1

Contrary to what our students may sometimes think, there IS fun in the world of science, particularly when it involves water. We are familiar with how we include water in our teaching and learning of most natural sciences: chemistry, biology, meteorology and geology, for example. All of these subjects have several topical sections that involve water. Other disciplines may cover some aspects of water or related aquatic activities. What we are not taking purposeful advantage of is water as a linking subject across the curriculum and a common thread that relates different disciplines and fields of human experience.

One place to start is the recently published book “Water – Global Challenges & Policy of Freshwater Use” by Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning and National Geographic Learning, which I’ve considered using in my oceanography course to enrich the topical section about water. This publication and others in the NGS Learning Reader Series includes concepts, lessons, activities and a media-rich eBook that is appropriate to use across the curriculum.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides useful information on daily water requirements and the American Council on Exercise has a helpful leaflet on Healthy Hydration. If you’d like to estimate your daily water requirements, access this handy Human Water Requirement Calculator.

Moving beyond science disciplines, we certainly can use the topic of water while teaching and learning the arts. Some examples include Handel’s Water Music; music played with Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica; the older glass harp usually played in most Renaissance fairs; the design and sculpture of water fountains; and the dynamic art of fountain displays of water and light, commonly found in Las Vegas and in various hotels, convention centers, and performing arts centers around the world.

But examples in engineering are the most notable: hydraulics, flood control, hydroelectric power, and waterways. Why not address the importance of water in the social sciences subjects of human settlements, population distribution, manufacturing, transportation, or geography – truly, the learning possibilities are endless if we are creative.

With good reason, the topic of water as a resource may permeate most academic and practical subjects we teach at the community college. Because of a growing global population, the demand for potable water increases each day, so much that a recent assessment by U. S. intelligence agencies warns that future global conflicts will be over water resources. A photo blog published on March 22, 2012, World Water Day illustrates dramatically how precious this fluid is for the 780 million people without access to clean water.

The question remains of how we can imbed the many concepts and ideas about water to link different disciplines across our curriculum. We are surrounded by pipes, joints, and valves hidden behind our buildings’ walls, so we don’t pay much attention to all the technology and engineering needed to bring all the clean water that we use, spill, and waste. But as teachers and lifelong learners ourselves, the onus is on community college faculty to help our students connect the many roles water plays in our civilization, health, well being and, ultimately, our survival.

One disaster happening now in the Philippines is the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan, the largest and strongest storm recorded. The news shows the desperation of the people affected, who ask first for clean drinking water that has become their most valuable commodity. Let’s take this opportunity to ask our students, and ourselves: What would we do in such a situation? How can we be prepared for a disaster of such magnitude? What simple technologies and methods could we use to collect and make drinkable water, if we were under such duress?

We take for granted that we open a faucet and clean, potable water comes out and we don’t even think of it as a precious resource. We need to be reminded that clean, safe water is essential for our civilization and our way of life. And life itself cannot exist without water, at least on this blue planet.

Zombies Among Us? Just Look Around


Even if you haven’t experienced any strange desire to munch on brains, walk erratically, or eat your delicious neighbor, you may be interested in motivating your students with the trending zombie theme in popular culture by linking it to your discipline. As an offshoot from my presentation during a recent faculty Lunch Bunch at FCC, here is some more (academic) information on zombies for teachers and students.

The first MOOC that uses the zombie theme is being taught by four faculty from the University of California, Irvine from October to December 2013. It uses AMC’s TV series “The Walking Dead” to explore topics in context of “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.” You can read The Chronicle of Higher Education’s review here.

This MOOC began on Monday, October 14, and I’m already completing its first module. I found the course engaging, with plenty of video material, discussions, surveys, and quizzes. The multi-disciplinary, co-curricular approach is evident in the exploration of survival under the menace of a catastrophic infectious disease and its effects on a society that reverts to the basics in order to prevail. There are no grades, of course, but you can assess your own learning as you go along.

If you are either oblivious to zombies or suffer from kinemortophobia (fear of zombies), you may access the National Geographic site “World War Z: Could a Zombie Virus Happen?”

Or you may want to learn about the neurology and physiology of zombies at the Texas Instruments site “STEM Behind Hollywood,” where Dr. Steven Schlozman, M.D., (they call him Dr. Z) and Dr. Mayim Bialik (a real neuroscientist and actor who appears in “The Big Bang Theory”) explain the math and science behind popular Hollywood themes, including zombies.

Dr. Scholzman is the author of “The Zombie Autopsies – Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse,” a wonderfully illustrated novel in paperback that is guaranteed to give you a few nightmares, that is, if you don’t like to go around performing autopsies. This book is fun to read during Halloween, especially with the graphic novels “The Living Dead,” Vols. 1-3 that are available at the FCC Library.

After this reading, you may get serious and learn how to prepare for the Zombie Apocalypse by visiting the very official zombie site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And, if you have $30 to spare, you may order the book “Zombies in the Academy – Living Death in Higher Education” published by the University of Chicago Press and by Amazon in Kindle format for less money. For further reading, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by Wade Davis tells the true story of zombie existence in Haitian society.

You may virtually and inexpensively zombify yourself and others with “Dead Yourself,” a free app from “The Walking Dead” that is available for both iPhone and Android. Yes, there’s an app for that.

Going with the Flow: Technology and Change

For the last week I’ve been learning some of the hidden, unwritten tricks to use my Microsoft Surface Pro tablet more effectively. I’m always learning how to use new devices, particularly those with a potential to enhance learning and the access to information.

I’ve already gone through two iPads, one ChomeBook, and a variety of regular Windows and Mac laptops, all of which I use daily. Upgrades, updates, new apps, a constant flow of improvements and innovations takes part of my working day, and, yes some of my private time too… How else am I going to master the last versions of EverNote, Pinterest, or Instagram?

Yes, technology… that is, digital technology, keeps changing all the time: Google Glass now, Service Pack XX for Window 8 tomorrow… The rate of change is faster than at any other time in history. Just think — the first minicomputer I actually touched was the Altair 8800, in 1975 at an electronics hobbyist show in Miami.

In 1980 I was the proud owner of a Timex Sinclair ZX80 and learned to write a few BASIC programs, and in 1983 I bought a Commodore 64, wow! This helped me to learn fast the Apple IIs and Apple IIe computers, and when I got my own Mac in 1986, I was on top of the world. Fast forward and I remember a blur of VAX 1880s, Mac Plus, Tandy 120, Mac II, IBM PC Junior, HP, Dell. …

Fundamental technologies, like rope-making, pulleys, levers, the wheel, took years, if not decades to spread across tribes, chiefdoms, and kingdoms in the early days. Some of the oldest ropes discovered are about 8,000 years old, apparently were used by sailors in the Mediterranean, and this technology was slowly and gradually improved and was still in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Even with the use of artificial fibers, rope was still rope and knots are knots.

These are basic technologies that are still used in their very advanced evolution without needing a computer… And, as basic as they are, we are forgetting how to use them: how many young people tie their shoelaces using the correct knots? How many don’t even use shoelaces and instead secure their flaps with Velcro, or don’t tie them at all?

Question: can you tie a square knot? How about a bowline knot?

Yes, these are really basic technologies, but they allowed our species to survive by being able to construct clothing and shelter (tying their pelts and tree branches), capture their food (with snares, nets, etc.). Our ancestors developed them and learned them at a slow pace — adaptation was relatively easy.

Humans tend to resist change. We get comfortable with the familiar, particularly what we learned early in life. Change is a stress factor when it occurs fast. Alvin Toffler explained it well in “Future Shock” and when he wrote it, the pace of change was half of what it is today. Now, we watch for those reminders in our phones, a new update is due, you need to upgrade, keep up with those apps… or don’t, at your own peril. Are you ready to adapt, to keep pace with the changes that this newer technologies demand? Did you tie your shoes this morning?

Alberto Ramirez has a MS Degree in Oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD, and graduate coursework from the University of Miami. He worked for nine years on oceanographic research in the tropical Pacific at the University of Mexico’s Mazatlan Research Station. He also worked as Science and Technology Coordinator at the Miami Museum of Science. He is currently the Director of Learning Technologies at Frederick Community College, where he has taught oceanography since 2004.