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Professors use multidisciplinary arsenal to tackle real-world problems

The campus and local communities are engaging in a multidisciplinary dialogue on issues surrounding one of the earth’s most vital elements — water. The project, Water: A Campus and Community Discourse on the Science, Policy, Art and Experience of an Essential Element, is funded by a Faculty Innovation Grant from the Office of the Provost.

Campus goals are to inspire new research and teaching ideas for faculty and provide motivation for student projects in a variety of disciplines. To encourage open dialogue between the campus and local communities, Lafayette has partnered with the Nurture Nature Center of Easton, an organization dedicated to addressing conflicts between economic development and environmental conservation.

David Brandes, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Dru Germanoski, Dr. Ervin R. VanArtsdalen ’35 Professor and head of geology and environmental geosciences, Andrew Smith, assistant professor of English and chair of American studies, and James Lennertz, associate professor of government and law, are collaborating on the project.

“Because water problems are inherently multidisciplinary, they are not solved by policy makers, engineers, or scientists operating alone,” says Brandes. “Questions of water supply, use, distribution, and quality involve considerations of health, utility, ethics, and aesthetics. Decision making around the questions of water produce disagreement and conflict, and demands on water resources will only increase in the coming decades.”

The Faculty Innovation Grant, which runs through the end of this year, enabled the team to attract experts in the field to campus and the Easton community. Guest speakers during the fall semester, like John Cronin, Hudson Riverkeeper of the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association in Garrison, N.Y., focused on raising awareness of issues related to water quantity and quality. Cronin discussed the Clean Water Act and lack of progress in cleaning up the nation’s waterways. The faculty team is hoping to create some interactive events in the future, including involvement from the arts and humanities.

Brandes believes projects that cross disciplines are vital in enabling faculty to prepare students for life after College Hill.

“Real-world problems know no disciplinary boundaries, yet academia is explicitly constructed as a land of silos,” he says. “Lafayette is taking the first steps to break down this culture with the new emphasis on interdisciplinary programs. Faculty will need to step out of their respective comfort zones for these programs to succeed.”

Water-related issues are a perfect example of the power of the multidisciplinary approach, as complex problems require creative solutions.

“We hope the project will inspire and encourage faculty, students, and community members to see themselves as participants in the issues surrounding equitable distribution of clean water on a planet of finite resources,” says Brandes.

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