Getting Your Feet Wet: Citizen Scientists Explore Water Use in San Diego

UC San Diego Physics Professor Adam Burgassar (third from left) and his colleagues explore “Beach Physics” with children and parents at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
UC San Diego Physics Professor Adam Burgassar (third from left) and his colleagues explore “Beach Physics” with children and parents at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

CREATE STEM Success Partner Spotlight

On January 25, 2014, multiple UC San Diego partners participated in a “WATER: In Search of Solutions” event at the San Diego Natural History Museum. The event was part of a larger National Science Foundation-funded initiative with three hubs, one in San Diego. Nan Renner, a recent UC San Diego PhD in Cognitive Science, directs the Art of Science Learning Incubator for Innovation in Balboa Park, focused on engaging San Diego residents in jointly designing solutions to a civic challenge.

“The Incubator is a year-long effort to engage community members, diverse in expertise, age, and life experience, in innovating products, services, and educational programs targeting our water challenge—a challenge proposed and selected by the San Diego community,” Renner explained.

For months, 100 regional residents of all ages – “Innovation Fellows” from both sides of the border, including several UC San Diego students and grads — have engaged in experiential learning activities designed to catalyze their collective design of products, services, and educational programs for improved water use in San Diego.

Renner’s team organized the January 25 Water Solutions event at the “Nat” to connect approximately 100 Innovation Fellows and the broader community with various community resources related to water use. “We face extraordinary challenges—and opportunities—in the mismatch between regional water supply and demand,” said event organizers. The day’s goal was to support San Diegans to “learn about multiple aspects of water including ecology, policy, infrastructure, technology, human behavior, and approaches to education through presentations, discussions, demonstrations, and interactive activities.”

Throughout the day, UC San Diego partners engaged visitors in water-focused learning experiences. For hours in the Nat lobby, UC San Diego Physics Professor Adam Burgasser and his colleagues engaged children and parents in hands-on, beach-centric activities aimed at making physics engaging and relevant (Beach Physics and the Physics of Water).

Burgasser and his Beach Physics co-director Dianna Cowern developed activities for the day as part of their broader effort to produce beach-focused curriculum, videos and activities for middle school students. One activity demonstrated the diffusion of molecules through water by asking participating kids and parents wearing different colored bands to stop and spin across the floor, then graph the results. As pictured below, another activity explained density to visitors by having them float an egg in plain water (it sank), then salt water (it floated).

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Two UC San Diego PhD students (Jonathan Eliashiv, pictured below, and Evan Grohs), a recent graduate and postdoc (Eve Armstrong), and three undergraduates (Daniel Gonzalez, Melisa Tallis and Zheng Zhang) helped lead children and parents in the fun.


UC San Diego connections to the day-long Water event ran deep. Greg Medders (pictured below), a chemistry grad student from The Center for Aerosol Impacts on Climate and the Environment, also presented on atmospheric chemistry and how clouds form:


Meanwhile, Cary Lowe, chair of the San Diego Water Policy Implementation Task Force and adjunct faculty in Urban Studies and Planning, led discussion of public policy issues; Exequiel Ezcurra, director of the UC Institute for Mexico and the United States and esteemed plant ecologist, spoke about water as not just a commodity, but also a service provided by ecosystems.

In addition to the 250+ registered attendees, casual visitors to the museum participated throughout the day, listening to an expert panel, engaging in roundtable discussions and interactive activities, looking at exhibits and watching demonstrations.

Deborah Forster, Assistant Project Scientist at UC San Diego, is the local faculty lead of the project. Forster says one next interest is to design K12 versions of the Incubator’s learning experiences to engage local teachers and students in water exploration.

Such collective effort at supporting STEM learning in our region is the kind of effort we love to see at the CREATE STEM Success Initiative at UC San Diego!

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