A remarkable conference on world water issues has taken place at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) campus every year since 2004, unique in that it is planned, executed, and presented almost entirely by students. Laurel Saito, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science and the Graduate Program of Hydrological Sciences, and Kate Berry, faculty in the Department of Geography, have worked together over the last 13 years to support the Student World Water Forum (SWWF) at UNR. Recently, Universities Council on Water Resources had the opportunity to speak to the two faculty members and learn more about this event.
The inspiration for the student planned conference came from Saito’s graduate school years at Colorado State University, when she wanted to gain exposure to water disciplines outside of her own civil engineering specialization. She gathered other interested graduate students together to produce a Student Water Symposium with an interdisciplinary, global perspective, and held the event for three years in a row with great success. The inherent challenge in student-run events was made obvious through this experience, however. “Because graduate students are transient, the feasibility of holding the program waxed and waned,” Saito explained. Upon arriving at UNR as a faculty member, she found a like-minded ally in Dr. Berry, also concerned with supporting interdisciplinary discussions of water issues among students and professionals. The two complement each other, Saito coming from a technical, engineering focus, and Berry from the geographical and human dimensions side of water issues. They developed and co-teach International Issues for Water Development, a 400/600 level capstone course that culminates in the Student World Water Forum. Undergraduates produce a research paper for presentation at the SWWF, and graduate students plan and implement the conference, presenting as well. Though the graduate student planning committee is responsible for the event operations, the course format guarantees continuity of involved faculty, ensuring the SWWF can continue to be an annual event.
The interdisciplinary aspect of the conference is as important as its production by students. The course is cross-listed between departments, and students from other water-related disciplines are encouraged to present. The 2015 SWWF included an impressive array of disciplines, ranging from the expected hydrological science, environmental science, natural resource, geography, geology, and civil engineering perspectives to atmospheric science, community health, wildlife ecology, economics, and even English and history. About 60 students presented, half of whom were undergraduates. The program typically is made up of approximately 12 sessions over the course of two days, and always includes a keynote speaker addressing a global water topic. To see more details and view the proceedings from the 2015 SWWF, please follow this link: http://www.cabnr.unr.edu/swwf/.
The conference has also proved to be a successful community outreach program for the university. Graduate students typically seek some sponsorship from local businesses with water issue concerns, and area business leaders and water experts from organizations such as the Desert Research Institute, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nevada Division of Environmental Protection take part in evaluating student presentations. Past student participants now in professional life frequently return to attend the conference or participate as judges and sponsors. The Nevada Water Resources Association has even offered scholarships to their own annual conference from time to time, so that excellent SWWF presenters may share their work there as well.
The Student World Water Forum is an exciting and innovative educational and professional development opportunity for students at all stages of their academic careers. The event challenges students to grow intellectually and build practical skills. The UCOWR community extends its thanks to both Dr. Saito and Dr. Berry for their creative initiative in nurturing excellence in the water leaders of tomorrow.
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