Water—it’s the resource that courses through every vein of our daily lives.
It keeps our communities healthy, our cities running and our economies growing. Water is the element that ties together everything that makes us thrive: From the produce aisle to the fishing pier, from our kitchen sink to the fire hydrant on our street corner, water is essential for everything we do.
But humans have a complicated relationship with water. We value it, but often offer it less respect than it deserves. We depend on it, but we are challenged by barriers to availability and cleanliness.
And these challenges are increasing—both locally and globally—every day.
A Backyard Full of Water
It’s no secret that the SUNY Oswego community loves its lake.
“It’s a dynamic sight outside just about every window on campus,” said Leigh Wilson, director of the college’s interdisciplinary programs and activities center, and director of the Creative Writing program. “The endless horizon it presents to us each day is a metaphor that constantly beckons us toward greater learning and attainment.”
Leigh isn’t surprised that as a community, we have come to care deeply about water issues in general, and our neighboring Great Lake in particular. So when students, faculty, staff and administrators voted for a topic for the college’s first Grand Challenge—a project for which Leigh serves as chair—the topics that clinched the most votes were fresh water and ecology.
The result: Fresh Water for All was chosen as the campus community’s Fall 2018-Spring 2020 Grand Challenges project.
Aligned with the college’s strategic plan, the goal of the Grand Challenges Project is to encourage our campus to “…work toward finding solutions for the grand challenges of our time” in a 21st-century way.
The initiative empowers the campus community to develop deeper perspectives and find solutions to the far-reaching challenge, said college President Deborah F. Stanley.
“It is a precious, iconic asset of our community,” President Stanley said of the choice to make water the focus of the Grand Challenge initiative. “Water potability and access can be a matter of life and death across the globe.”
Awash in Opportunities
Now two semesters into the initiative, Fresh Water for All has yielded multidisciplinary involvement—and fascinating results.
Around campus, classroom walls and public spaces serve as tangible reminders of the project. Curricula across the college reflect water themes. The best student papers and research addressing Fresh Water for All are being compiled. Relevant performances and speakers have been brought to campus. Civic and volunteer opportunities have been established.
In February, Penfield Library hosted a weekend Grand Challenges event—a Makeathon competition for the best Fresh Water-related project. Based on the concept of a hackathon, a team-based event of intensive creative problem solving, the Makeathon’s winning project proposed an app for smart phones. The app uses sound recognition technology to record individual water usage over the course of a day and then aggregates usage to include a family, or even whole neighborhoods, so that friendly competitions for least water usage can arise.
The prize-winning Human Computer Interaction graduate students (from left)—Bharati Mahajan M’20, Khushboo Panchal M’19 and Joe Gray M’20 —brought interdisciplinary collaboration from different undergraduate backgrounds: graphic design, science and technology, and film.
The event was just one of the many opportunities funded through mini-grants from the Office of the Provost for Grand Challenges projects that could use a little seed money.
The breadth of ways people are applying the theme speaks to the creativity and ingenuity of the SUNY Oswego community in adapting their skills and knowledge in new ways, Leigh said.
“Our campus is one of the most creative and solution-minded campuses in the country,” Leigh said. “All of our disciplines and offices work together to do great good; what we do here can change the world.”
And changing the world can happen locally—students in Professor Keli DiRisio’s Motion Graphics course skillfully blended research and infographics to create professional videos addressing Fresh Water for All.
Or globally—SUNY Oswego students helped install purifiers in Puerto Rican communities whose water supplies were impacted by two hurricanes a little over a year ago (see related story).
These are just a sampling of some of the water-focused projects by campus members.
“From social justice issues to global sustainability and access, from the science of pollution to artistic interpretations of fresh water issues to media coverage of fresh water power politics, Oswego students, faculty and staff from all disciplines have been given a unique opportunity to tackle the impact that Fresh Water for All has across every aspect of our global community,” President Stanley said.
Ariana Dzibela ’19, fine arts major with a history minor, created this poster for her Art 207 Digital Media Static class. Students selected from two water-related themes of “Embrace the Flow” or “Our History: It’s in the Water.”
Half A Century of Study
SUNY Oswego established the Lake Ontario Environmental Laboratory (now called the Environmental Research Center) in the 1960s, and since then, has brought in millions of dollars to conduct research on the lake in partnership with such groups as the Great Lakes Research Consortium, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. This research was the focus of an OSWEGO Alumni Magazine cover story in summer 2016.
While the community continues to focus on the Grand Challenges Project: Fresh Water for All, students have been using the initiative to share a love for the lake that serves as a foundation for their research, and their creative and civic endeavors. A new student group called Shining Waters has taken hold on campus, with a focus on the ecological preservation of Lake Ontario.
A student Grand Challenges video project, created by Derrick Benton ’18 and Tanner Shore ’20, captures today’s students sharing their perspectives on the lake—and some ways to treat it better.
A student interviewed by the video team, Zitouni Layachi ’19, said the lake has been both a source of natural beauty and a place of friendship during his time on campus. Sonya Kedarnath ’19—like many of the alumni who came before her—was first drawn to attending SUNY Oswego because of the lake.
“No other schools had this lake, so, of course, I had to come,” said Sonya, who counts her first time venturing to flat rocks—and swimming in a lake for the first time in her life—as one of the most fun experiences of her time in Oswego.
And the flood of ideas—and love—has stretched into the city of Oswego, including a We Are Lake Ontario art exhibition that ran in summer 2018 in SUNY Oswego’s downtown art gallery.
The initiative will continue into the next school year. The challenge remains to capture the value of water: beautiful, fascinating and treasured; urgently needed and endangered.
“I think scarcity always increases value, and we are so fortunate in the United States to have an abundance of fresh water, but it’s also one reason we neglect the resource,” Leigh said.
“Our supply is dwindling for various reasons and in various places—from the groundwater in our western states to the infrastructure of our aging cities—and in the end, as has happened in many places around the world, we will pay attention to this resource we must have and must protect and must begin to value and respect, or else there will be hell to pay.” —Eileen Moran
GRAND CHALLENGE MINI-GRANTS
Here’s a sampling of some campus projects representing a range of disciplines,
which received mini-grants this academic year:
• Environmental Art: Construction and destruction of the Amitayus mandala in a ceremony by Tibetan Monks
• Hydrogeology: Analysis of lake-bottom sediment to understand geologic records of lake conditions
• English/Creative Writing: Publication of written works across the curriculum focused on Fresh Water for All
• Technology/Geology: Use of student-built splitting station to investigate data to maintain or restore aquatic ecosystems
• Political Science/Gender and Women’s Studies: Interdisciplinary study of fresh water activism in Oswego, Onondaga and Jefferson counties
• Community Eco-Group/College Arts programs: Creation of a fresh water chapbook and multimedia public exhibition
• Poetry: Support for public reading of nationally renowned eco-poet, Rebecca Dunham, known for poetry about Flint, Mich., and Deepwater Horizon
• 3D Art: Projection mapping and virtual reality to create an immersive 3D experience