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Earth 111 - Water: Science and Society

This is a sample syllabus.

This sample syllabus is a representative example of the information and materials included in this course. Information about course assignments, materials, and dates listed here is subject to change at any time. Definitive course details and materials will be available in the official course syllabus, in Canvas, when the course begins.


This course is designed as a general-education investigation of the importance of water to the existence of life on Earth, and the qualities of water that lead to its unusual but critical properties. The first part of the course will provide a basic scientific background for understanding water movement, occurrence, and behavior, through a series of interactive activities. The second part of the course will draw upon this scientific framework to understand the relationships between water and human activities. Among other diverse topics, we will examine the role of water in climate regulation, the impact of water on human populations and activities, the benefits and drawbacks of modern water management strategies related to irrigation and dams, and policy issues regarding water quality and availability. A sense of the human history of water use and the impacts of natural cycles will be conveyed through activities, virtual field trips (filmed footage with the instructors and discussion focused on key topics related to surface water, water re-use and recycling, and dams), and assigned readings and associated online discussions. Although we will focus on case studies from the American West, we will extend this to include global issues of water scarcity and potential conflict, for example in India, China, and the fertile crescent.


Students who excel in this course are able to:

  • Effectively describe the two-way relationship between water resources and human society: how water availability and quality affect economic opportunities and human well-being and how human activity affects water resources.
  • Knowledgeably explain the distribution and dynamics of water at the surface and in the subsurface of the Earth and how the distribution and characteristics are expected to change over the next 50 years.
  • Identify appropriate data collection practices for a variety of hydrologic data, synthesize and analyze data from multiple sources, and interpret the results.
  • Develop strategies and best practices to decrease water stress and increase water quality.
  • Thoughtfully evaluate information and policy statements regarding the current and future predicted state of water resources and communicate their evaluations in terms that can be understood by the general public.

Required Materials

The materials listed here represent those that may be included in this course. Students will find a definitive list in the course syllabus, in Canvas, when the course begins.

Fishman, C. (2012). The Big Thirst, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. Free Press. 




We have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. How much and how well you learn is dependent on your attitude, diligence, and willingness to ask for clarifications or help when you need them. We are here to help you succeed. Please keep up with the class schedule and take advantage of opportunities to communicate with us and with your fellow students. You can expect to spend an average of 8 – 10 hours per week on class work.

Major Assignments

This course will rely on a variety of methods to assess and evaluate student learning, including:


You are expected to read all online course material in addition to any assigned reading from your course text (The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman) and/or other news articles, etc. Readings are also assigned in Canvas. You are expected to use examples from these readings in your weekly discussion question responses.

Discussions (45% of total course grade)

In online discussion forums (hosted in Canvas) you will provide thoughtful commentary and responses to engaging questions reflecting on the content in this course and using examples from your reading to support your response.

Quizzes (40% of total course grade)

To assess your reading and course content learning you will complete weekly online quizzes in Canvas.

Capstone Project (15% of total course grade)

A final project (written paper and oral presentation) on water issues faced by a selected city will be assigned about mid-way through the semester and due during the last week of classes and finals week.

Course Schedule

Course Schedule
01Introduction and Orientation
  • Take and submit the Academic Integrity Certificate
  • Take the Unit 0 - Introduction and Orientation Quiz
  • Introduce yourself in the discussion assigment

Module 1: Freshwater Resources - A Global Perspective

  • Global Freshwater Resources
  • Water Usage: What and Where?
  • Demand for Water
  • Pricing Water
  • Module 1 Discussion: Fresh Water: Commodity or Right?
  • Module 1 Assignment: Water Use Assignment

Module 2: Climatology of Water

  • Unique Properties of Water
  • Water Distribution on Earth
  • Relative Humidity
  • Module 2 Quiz

Module 3: Rivers and Watersheds

  • Water Moves Through the Landscape
  • River Flow Changes Over Time
  • Rivers Come in Many Shapes and Sizes
  • Module 3 Discussion: The Excruciating Dilemma
  • Module 3 Quiz

Module 4: Flood and Drought

  • Making Sense of Hydrologic Variability
  • Normal Versus Extreme Hydrologic Events
  • Floods
  • Droughts
  • Hydrologic Variability Versus the Human Need for Water Resource Reliability
  • Module 4 Discussion: Ellicot City
  • Module 4 Quiz

Module 5: Dam it All!

  • Introduction to Dams
  • Ponding the Waters: Impacts of Dams
  • Bringing Down the Dams
  • The Future of Dams: Developing Nations
  • Module 5 Discussion: Regulating Dam Construction
  • Module 5 Quiz

Module 6.1 Groundwater Hydrology - Aquifiers and Properties 

  • Aquifers Explained
  • Types of Aquifers
  • Aquifer Properties
  • Regional Aquifer Systems: Examples
  • Darcy's Experiments and Darcy's Law
  • Module 6.1 Discussion: Groundwater Levels Near You
  • Module 6.1 Quiz

Module 6.2: Groundwater Hydrology - Aquifer Processes and Dynamics

  • Driving Forces for Groundwater Flow
  • Effects of Pumping Wells
  • Groundwater Budgets
  • The High Plains Aquifer
  • Module 6.2 Discussion: High Plains Aquifer Overdraft
  • Module 6.2 Quiz
29Reflection & Capstone Introduction
  • Unit 2 Discussion Reflection
  • Capstone City Selection.

Module 7: What is in Your Water? 

  • Units of Water Chemistry
  • Drinking Water Regulation
  • The Chemistry of Natural Waters
  • Contaminant Example 1: Arsenic in Groundwater
  • Contaminant Example 2; "Dead Zones" and Excess Nutrient Runoff
  • Module 7 Discussion: The Problem of Dead Zones
  • Module 7 Quiz
  • Module 8.1: Cities in Peril: Dealing With Water Scarcity - History and Current Approaches
  • Surface Water Allocation and Management
  • Cities in Peril: LA
  • Cities in Peril: Las Vegas
  • The Colorado River Compact
  • Module 8.1 Discussion: Cadillac Desert.
  • Review your Capstone Project Assignment.

Module 8.2: Cities in Peril: Future Climate Change, Population Growth, and Water Issues

  • Water Use, Water Stress, and Population Growth
  • Climate Change
  • All Water Problems are Local
  • Module 8.2 Discussion: Projected Climate Change
  • Module 8.1 and 8.2 Quiz
  • Work on Capstone Project

Module 9: Water and Politics 

  • Sharing the Waters
  • Module 9 Discussion: Water Sharing
  • Work on Capstone Project

Module 10: Solving the Water Crisis

  • Potential Solutions to Problems with Water Scarcity and Quality
  • Seawater Desalination (SWRO)
  • Water Re-Use
  • Water Banking and Optioning of Water Rights
  • Distant Sources
  • Unit 3 Reflection
  • Work on Capstone Project
315Capstone Project
  • Capstone Project Assignment
  • Capstone Project Part 1: Written
  • Capstone Project Part 2: Presentation