Students gain real-world experience and collaborate with government and NGOs
Students enrolled in Trent University’s Integrated Watershed Management course are receiving an education that goes well beyond book-learning. The Environmental Resource Science/Studies and Geography students are gaining real-world experience by developing integrated watershed management plans for four watersheds in Mexico.
“There’s only so much you can learn from theoretical study,” says Dr. Raul Ponce-Hernandez, associate professor in the Departments of Environmental and Resource Science and Geography, who is the course instructor. “Students in this course are learning by doing. They are engaged in a case study that is realistic because they are working for clients in Mexico.” The students are working in collaboration with a Mexican NGO, Salvemos Rio Laja, local and federal offices of the Ministry of the Environment, and Natural Resources of Mexico.
Integrated Watershed Management (ERSC-GEOG 4640H) is a fourth-year, half-credit course that began in January. The students in the course have been divided into four teams of five to six members, each working on a different watershed area: La Laja river watershed in Central Mexico; the Grijalva river watershed on the southeast Gulf of Mexico; the Coatzacoalcos river watershed on the central Gulf of Mexico; and the Candelaria river watershed on the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The watersheds were selected in response to concerns raised by local residents who identified problems such as soil erosion, water contamination, and decrease in water fauna. “The clients wanted an assessment of their overall situation that can be used as a basis for dealing more specifically with their problems,” says Dr. Ponce-Hernandez.
The course consists of a series of labs culminating in the development of a plan. The students have been in regular communication with the clients, who have provided information and data about the watersheds. They have been busy processing the data, developing recommendations, and creating maps depicting ecological zones and showing critical areas that need attention.
At the end of the term, some of the students, accompanied by Dr. Ponce-Hernandez, will travel to Mexico to present the results, including the management plan, maps and figures, to government officials and academic audiences from local universities. Participants will receive a certificate from the sponsoring NGO and a university in Mexico, which may be a helpful reference for their careers. The students are paying for the trips out of their own pockets.
Participants say the course has been intensive, with each team member spending fifteen hours per week on their assignment. But all agree that they are learning more because the course is hands-on. “We learn things in the class and then apply what we’ve learned in the labs,” says Tim Bourne. “It gives us a more well-rounded look at the topic.”
Students are also finding that the course provides a scientific framework for other interests that they may have. Brendan MacNaughton says, “My research interest is contaminant transport, and looking at watersheds is part of that, because water is a major carrier of contaminants. A lot of what we learn can be applied to areas beyond managing watersheds.”
Catherine Monaghan agrees, saying, “I’m doing a thesis on the politics of management and I wanted a scientific perspective. Everyone lives in a watershed and everyone has a stake in water resources, and so this course is very applicable to other areas.”