Katherine Dale / 130 McAllister Way, Santa Cruz CA 95060 
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  • Kat

Consensus-Building in the Classroom: California Water Fix

Updated: Nov 29, 2019


This winter will be my seventh quarter being a Teaching Assistant at UC Santa Cruz. Unlike other universities (including my alma mater, the University of Miami), TAs at UCSC are front-and-center -- we typically attend every lecture, lead discussion sections/labs, grade papers and exams, and sometimes even teach lectures and create assessments. Being an integral part of the teaching team means that we face the same challenges as other educators, but professors and TAs are rarely formally trained in educational techniques. Luckily, my department is committed to providing more inclusive, engaging, and beneficial education for our students, and I've learned a lot about how to be a better educator over the past three years. It has been both a wonderful and profoundly humbling experience. I have had some teaching "wins" that I am very proud of, and other teaching fails that still make me cringe and cover my eyes. Today, I'm going to talk about one of the wins (but in a future post, I'll write about some fails!)

In fall 2018, I was fortunate enough to be a TA for Freshwater Ecology for the first time. In this upper-division class, weekly discussion sections were traditionally built around reading/discussing Cadillac Desert, the seminal book on the history and politics of water in the arid West (if you live in California, I desperately urge you to pick up a copy). Despite its importance, students in past years found Cadillac Desert group discussions irrelevant or boring. Thus, we made a big attempt in 2018 to rethink section and design activities that would be more useful and engaging for students, focused on California's water history through Cadillac Desert, contemporary water issues, and the connections between water issues and freshwater ecology.

We designed a lot of new activities for this quarter that were well-received from students. However, I think the most successful activity we created was a consensus-building activity focused on the California Water Fix & Eco Restore Project (i.e., the "Delta tunnels project"), which proposes building massive tunnels routing water directly from the Sacramento River to the start of the California aqueduct, thus circumventing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. CA Water Fix has been heavily debated, involves many interest groups, and is generally viewed by environmentalists as a bad idea. But no matter the hate towards Water Fix, it's undeniable that the environmental problems associated with water transport from the Delta persist. We wanted students to think critically about this issue as well as connect ecological concepts to contemporary water issues.

Originally, we were going to organize a classroom debate on the issue. However, my older brother, Dr. Alexander Dale, senior officer of sustainability at MIT's Solve, reminded me that long-term solutions to environmental issues are typically formed through consensus-building, not stick-to-your-guns debates, and suggested that having students build skills in discussion and cross-group understanding would improve their ability to solve big problems,

We first randomly assigned students a group number and one of 8 stakeholders that they would represent (see above). To start, each type of stakeholders gathered to discuss their shared platform and goals. They then split up into their numbered groups for the main activity (a technique called "jigsawing"). Each group also had one student who would act as the discussion observer, whose job was to take notes on how the other students interacted with one another. Students were given a handout with some brief background on the Delta, as well as a few guiding questions including "how does your group define a 'success' in terms of consensus-building?", "what are the ecological problems in the Delta, and why might they be occurring?", and "what solutions and strategies can be offered? (Be bold!)." We then gave students 30 minutes to come up with a new solution to the ecological problems that the Delta faces. We ended the activity by having the groups report to the rest of the class on how their discussions went (did they reach consensus? Why or why not?), as well as having the discussion observer from each group provide one observation about how students interacted/built consensus.

The results were perfectly illustrative of how consensus-building works in real life. One group reported that the student who represented governor Jerry Brown coincidentally "dominated the conversation" while another noted that "certain groups were very stubborn." Many groups reported that stakeholders struggled to listen to and understand others' goals rather than just rehash their own stance. No group reached a consensus -- just as in real-life, environmental problem-solving through consensus-building takes a long time. The benefit is that the ultimate solution will be hopefully long-term and agreed upon by all stakeholders. While legislative action is much faster, those decisions often become embroiled in long-term court battles.

Although I wish we had run another survey at the end of the quarter, students seemed to get a lot out of this activity. Our course professor actually brought up consensus-building in one of his following lectures, and I hope that hearing about it in lecture meant more to them for having participated in a consensus-building activity of their own. The activity also gave them an opportunity to learn more about a contemporary water issue in their region.and to connect ecological concepts (natural and anthropogenic flow patterns, saltwater intrusion, endangered species) to water politics in California.

What would I do differently?

If I do this again, I'll make sure to have the number of students/number of groups planned out better -- things were a little chaotic making sure that smaller groups had a good spread of stakeholders. I would also leave more time to synthesize the activity and discuss conclusions (i.e., "consensus building is hard stuff!")