About Water Inquiry

“…it is not enough to simply reengineer our water infrastructure;
we must reengineer the way people think about water and our relationship to it.”

The Ripple Effect, Alex Prud’homme

Working with Water and Ideas

The Water Inquiry project of Smith College works to improve children’s understandings of water while advancing idea-centered learning. Participants investigate water as a topic that stimulates curiosity and provokes problems of understanding, as well as a medium for inquiry with which to explore the development of ideas and theories. The creation and revision of classroom resources—interactive stories, learning adventures, and tools for inspiring inquiry—allows Smith student researchers to learn alongside elementary students and educators in a dynamic, collaborative design process. Members of Water Inquiry explore best practices for sustaining scientific inquiry in schoolyards, classrooms, and communities, drawing children’s attentions and imaginations to water and thought– two essential, yet “hidden” resources.

Why Water? Insights from Educators

“I wish every subject were like water. Kids like everything about it, and it’s probably the most ubiquitous and magical substance around us,” reflected art teacher Bob Hepner in a July 2015 Water Inquiry teacher workshop. Educators continually add to the list of reasons for studying water: “It’s everywhere. It keeps changing forms. It sustains life. We have to improve how to manage it as a resource.” They are struck by the “vigor and persistence with which their students develop water questions, theories and explanations.”

Children’s perspectives are equally enthusiastic and aptly distilled by one third grader’s reflections in her nature journal: “I love studying water.” Students’ curiosities provide a wellspring of energy from which to begin water investigations: “Going out in a downpour, looking up at clouds, peering down storm drains and watching the river after a storm, were moments that stood out for teachers because their students were deeply engaged in trying to explain phenomena in their world” (June, 2016).

Questions about water offer multiple points of entry for cross-disciplinary study consistent with Next Generation Science and Engineering practices, Common Core English Language Arts Standards, and STEM to STEAM. Where does water come from? Where does water go? Why is water important? How does water travel? How does water get clean (and what makes it dirty)? Can water run out? These questions, often formulated from children’s “first thoughts,” guide curricular practices by connecting students and teachers to the relevancy and urgency of confronting complex interactions between humans and water.

How does Water Inquiry work to improve ideas?

To cultivate problem-solving skills and prepare children for the challenges of the 21st century, the Water Inquiry project shapes learning experiences with an eye towards the kinds of thinking needed to engage in “real world” discourse. At our July, 2015 teacher workshop, professor Al Rudnitsky spoke of the project’s alignment with idea-centered learning and Next Generation Science and Engineering practices, particularly the framework of “asking questions, constructing explanations, and planning and carrying out investigations.” He posed a question that guided collaborative research: How do we design learning environments where [the] kind of thinking [encouraged by NGSS] can take place?

Water Inquiry student researchers design learning environments and classroom resources informed by inquiry-based learning, knowledge-building discourse, and teaching as story-telling. In 2017, Water Inquiry launched the first in a series of interactive stories: Inquiry, Inc. and the Case of the Missing Ducklings. The illustrated picture book integrates these methodologies through the characterization of plucky protagonists who embody guiding principles: taking the lead when solving real-world problems, engaging in lively discourse, and modeling inquiry strategies. Their work, like the work of Water Inquiry students, makes a difference beyond book-pages, and even classroom walls. Learning alongside these characters, children become confident that their ideas matter. This mindset is captured by one first grader who displayed her innovative storm-drain model to classmates:  “I think people could really make a drain like ours with a scooper. So maybe we can share our ideas and they will build it. Cause we know a lot about drains now. And ducklings!” (January 2017). Her exclamation reveals the importance of integrating direct experience with conscious reflections on the learning process, and demonstrates the possibility of “reengineering” not only water infrastructure, but also how we think about water and our relationship to it.

Who can participate, and how?

Water Inquiry welcomes all forms of interest and collaboration; as the character Silvia says at the end of our Missing Ducklings story, “Anyone who helps is part of Inquiry, Inc.” Teachers and researchers view themselves as co-learners, communicating through classroom pilots, teacher workshops, and the Water Inquiry website. A good way to start engaging with Water Inquiry is to test-drive some of the resources on our website. On the next rainy day, take your students out in your schoolyard and invite them to explore: “Where does water come from? Where does water go?”

If you would like to subscribe to the Water Inquiry blog, or are interested in finding out more about our work, please contact Carol Berner at cberner@smith.edu.

Meet the Team

Current team (2019-20)
Emily Buck
Camille Butterfield
Emily Buxengaard
Brit Collins
Abigail Moon

Project Alumnae:
Katy Butler (’17)
Allyson Ciccarone (’17)
Zoe Dong (’18)
Pinn Janvatanavit (’18)
Meghan Johnson (’19)
Ruth Neils (’19)
Hannah Searles (’18)

Smith faculty: Carol Berner

Special thanks to participating K-6 teachers from:

Anne T. Dunphy School, Williamsburg; Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, Easthampton; Jackson Street School, Northampton; Leeds Elementary School, Leeds; Maple Street School, Easthampton; and Smith Campus School, Northampton.

Written by Carol Berner & Brittany Collins on behalf of the Water Inquiry project (August, 2017)