Water Expert Robert Gusentine Visits Classrooms, Gives Todd Lecture

Water Expert Robert Gusentine Visits Classrooms, Gives Todd Lecture

By: Tara Kulkarni, Ph.D., P.E., Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

As an engineer concerned with issues of water quality, it was fitting that I had the pleasure of hosting and watching water expert Robert “Gus” Gusentine in action in classrooms. Gus is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow – which means we had him for the whole week – and a Todd lecturer cohosted by the College of Professional Schools and the College of Science and Mathematics.

We started out in my “Hydrogeology” course, which is offered by the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, and is a required course for Environmental Science majors. It is also taken as a science elective by students in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Here, Gus started off with twin themes, one related to the “hydro” or water component, and the other on the fact that he was neither a scientist, nor an engineer, unlike the students in the room. He was therefore bringing to them the story of water through his lens as a retired Navy Captain, who has been thinking of water over the past few years. He indicated that research that he conducted for a white paper on water quality in China, just before he left the Navy, was so powerful that he could not turn away from it. For example, China’s hold over Tibet and the fact that eight major rivers in the Asian continent originate from the Tibet region, implies that China controls water access to the 41% of the population in this region that relies on these rivers for their water.

Gus then helped students see the connections between their classroom content of “Hydrogeology”, a study of groundwater and its interactions with earth materials, and its place in the water crisis of fast depleting aquifers, and salt water intrusion.

He took the class on a world water tour with examples ranging from the Chesapeake Bay watershed to the Nile in Africa and the Mediterranean, as well as the major rivers that originated in regions controlled by China in the Asian continent. His message was clear. It is the human impact that helps make the issue of water relevant to any academic major and every person on earth. He then helped students see that all water issues, such as floods, droughts, pollution, etc., are people issues at a very basic level, and therefore social, political, economic, legal, psychological and cultural issues. He encouraged the students to be well versed in their scientific understanding of water in this class, so they may use all these other considerations to produce sustainable solutions.

Gus cited statistics that the global population will approach the 10 billion mark by the year 2050, noting that rising demand for food to feed this growing population will occur as the global water deficit reaches 40%. He suggested that his generation has passed challenges such as these to the current generation, and they should follow the Norwich tagline in “achieving distinction” by solving some of these global problems.

In his presentation to the HN 101 Honors seminar course on Sustainability, which has mixed majors from across the campus, Gus demonstrated his terrific skills at really reading his audience. He challenged the chemists in the room to use their ideas to “breakdown” complex compounds from disposable materials into their original forms as an “atomic/molecular level recycling” project. He challenged the engineers to build the technologies relevant to ensuring continued water and food supply for the growing population. He called on the business major to develop entrepreneurial ideas around smart and efficient energy use, and the computer scientist to write code and develop programs to protect us from cyber warfare and maintain our software driven systems. He also pulled in our lone English major and tasked him with writing the new “human code” that we may all have to live by and to discuss the ethics of what a changed world may force us to do. He also encouraged students to learn to tell their story.

This was a theme that he carried into the joint classes in CoPS on Hydrology and Water and Wastewater Treatment. With several students overlapping across these classes, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering Michael Kelley and I had organized a joint three-hour class session, where we asked Gus to provide our students with the big picture and big ideas in this area, and then have students apply some of those ideas in the context of five themes we had had them research. These themes spanned floods, droughts, water security, water infrastructure resilience, and water wars. Once again, Gus provided a comprehensive overview of the water story – its environmental, social, cultural, political, legal, and economic threads that the availability (and scarcity), use, supply, quality, etc. were hanging on by. He then really engaged students in the best and most effective ways to craft a meaningful story. Sometimes called an elevator pitch, his task was for students to learn to quickly pull together various aspects of their lives, or the world, or a topic they are presenting on to create a powerful narrative that is pertinent to the audience with whom they will engage. He had students work on a number of small group exercises to try out some of his lessons.

All in all, Gus encouraged our students to pause and think. He challenged them to see the interconnectedness of our world, citing his key phrase of “systemic thinking”. He shared many stories, fun facts, and anecdotes, to underscore his points, and did so with both humor and humility. For example, he described how women in a small village in Afghanistan walked two kilometers each way to collect water from a river and bring it to their homes. A charity involved in drilling wells decided that the best way to help this community of women avoid this long trip everyday, and free up their time, was to drill a well in the village center. As it turned out, just days later, the well was destroyed, not by the Taliban, as initially suspected, rather by the women themselves. The reason was that the walk to and from the river provided the women the only opportunity to speak freely and express themselves to their peers without fear of any kind. The newly installed well prevented this simple enjoyment and had to be removed. The story underscored his point that implementing solutions without consideration of social and cultural issues creates more resentment and prevents progress.

Gus not only brought rich content and a call to action into each of these classes, he also provided students with tools to help see themselves as part of this global picture and think of their role and place in this world in these contexts. With a number of us faculty being time starved in the classroom, in the way we have to keep context and big picture talk limited to a few sessions, as we delve into theory, design, and calculations, Gus helped us fill in this gap, by encouraging students to think big and see beyond our Norwich world.

He demonstrated many skills, beyond simple content knowledge, such as reading an audience accurately and revising your message accordingly. He showcased how to create compelling narratives that tell our stories, both the elevator pitch version, as well as the detailed one, which hook an audience and bring them over to our side and viewpoint. Without perhaps intending to, he also modeled how to “own the room” when you present, while still inviting questions, comments and feedback. These are the skills we yearn for our own students to acquire as they become future engineers, architects, business owners, and nurses.

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