Students create multimedia projects on U.S. water crisis in Honors College class

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Students in the 100th Meridian Project class got to hear from Robert Hirsch and Linda Debrewer, hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, who spoke about their work on water measurement, management, and policy. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Aloana Hall, a junior studying government and international politics at George Mason University, is learning about water. More specifically, she’s learning about the lack of water resources in the Western United States and the environmental impact of its scarcity.

“Every week, I’m learning something new,” said Hall. “The West is slowly running out of water, and it’s important to know about that and what that means.”

Hall is one of six students in the Honors College class, the “100th Meridian Project,” which involves a multidisciplinary investigation into the water crisis in the American West.

“My motive here is to have a good research-based class that excites these students about these issues,” said College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Rick Davis, who is teaching the class. “Each student chooses a research vector and brings in material they’ve found each week to discuss with the class.”

Zoe Winter, a junior majoring in theater, is researching how advertising and literature at the time encouraged people to settle in Western states.

“Think about the slogan of ‘Go West, young man,’” Winter said. “It was used to lure people into the West.”

The 100th Meridian Project at Mason began with Davis reading Wallace Stegner’s chronicling of John Wesley Powell’s early explorations of the Colorado River. Powell, once director of the U.S. Geological Survey, concluded that the American West was incapable of supporting large human populations due to its lack of water sources. Stegner’s book, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the American West,” stuck with Davis.

Davis created the 100th Meridian Project as an effort to understand why Powell’s recommendations and concerns were ignored and whether there are contemporary parallels in how our society ignores scientific warnings pertaining to climate change.

In 2015, Mason’s Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President provided a seed grant enabling a partnership with Fall for the Book, the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and the College of Science to begin the 100th Meridian Project. Since then, students and faculty have been telling the story of water ecology, land use, and public policy through the project, with a play at its core. At an event in February, excerpts of the play were read, followed by a discussion led by College of Science Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm on the science of water.

“I’m really interested in how theater can be used to make the world a better place by exposing people to problems in the world and what solutions are possible,” said Winter. “That’s what this class and the 100th Meridian Project are all about. It’s been cool to see a real project being used to effectively teach people.”

Davis is always on the lookout for new information to include in both the classroom context and in the overall project. On a recent Thursday, his students got to hear from Robert Hirsch and Linda Debrewer, hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey, who spoke about their work on water measurement, management, and policy.

On most class days, students read aloud the material they find in their individual research area. Davis said that he hopes to incorporate some of their research to advance the 100th Meridian Project.

Hall said she’d love to see some of her research on the effect of the water shortage on minority communities included in the overall project.

“I noticed that the voices of the minority communities were missing from the narrative as it is now, and so this was something I could hopefully contribute,” Hall said.