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Course Helps Researchers Learn Common Language

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 1:29 pm / June 11, 2015

AquaticModeling620x320A biologist, a geologist and a sociologist walk onto a sandbar. One turns to the others and says … well, it may not really matter what they say. Because despite their considerable expertise, researchers often have trouble communicating effectively across disciplines, especially when it comes to how data and models are prepared, interpreted and presented.

An intensive two-week interdisciplinary modeling course wrapping up this week at Boise State University aims to change that.

Funded by a National Science Foundation EPSCoR grant, the Western Consortium for Watershed Analysis, Visualization and Exploration (WC-WAVE) project has brought together faculty and graduate students from across disciplines and institutions throughout Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico. Participants have been meeting from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. every day, including weekends.

2015-06-06_19aThe class was designed and coordinated by Laurel Saito from the University of Nevada, Reno. Boise State faculty and staff offering assistance include Lejo Flores and Jim McNamara, geosciences; Stephen Crowley, philosophy; Ben Pauli, biological sciences; and Josh Johnston, Division of Research and Economic Development. Graduate student Kimberley Corwin (geosciences) is serving as a teaching assistant, playing a key logistical role in assembling instructional materials and transporting participating faculty to and from the airport.

To be effective, water management must be interdisciplinary. But attempting to address new issues through a single disciplinary lenses can have consequences that exacerbate existing concerns or create new ones. Cross-disciplinary communications issues that need to be addressed can include:

  • Different spatial and temporal scales specific to each discipline
  • Differences in degrees of uncertainty of data and models
  • Lack of awareness of what modeling options are available in an interdisciplinary sense
  • Differences in terminology and perspectives when discussing common issues or concerns
  • Need for education and training in interdisciplinary approaches

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Under the broader umbrella of managing complex water systems, participants are exploring topics including hydrology, ecology, data science, visualization and fish biology. Each also is involved with a group project focusing on some aspect of aquatic ecosystems and involving colleagues from other universities and disciplines.

Projects involve creating models based on Treasure Valley population changes and water management, northern Idaho fisheries and climate change, New Mexico’s acequias (community-operated irrigation projects dating from colonial Spanish times), and more. Many projects have cultural and social dimensions that cannot be ignored in modeling.

Participants also enjoyed a field trip to the Dry Creek watershed and worked with the Discovery Center of Idaho to help the museum prepare for the unveiling of its newest exhibit.

“When we stepped up to host the class it was because it has been a really great program for a number of our graduate students who have participated in past years,” said Flores. “Hosting the program at Boise State has introduced students and faculty from around the West to our university, facilities and region, and raised awareness of our graduate programs in hydrologic sciences, geosciences and biological sciences.

“Though intensive, it’s activities like these that build bridges between faculty, students and institutions that are long lasting and prove very fruitful. So it’s definitely worth the extra time.”