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A year of water: Snapshots from UMSI’s first theme year

A photo of blue water and white sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Wednesday, 06/05/2024

This year, students, faculty and staff in the Great Lakes State were challenged to look beneath the surface of an issue that surrounds us. “Water conservation and access” — the topic of the University of Michigan School of Information’s 2023-2024 theme year — became a curricular focus, a community endeavor and a source of individual inspiration. 

Using their skills as information scientists, students examined issues like aging infrastructure, water contamination and invasive species in the Great Lakes. They formed relationships with local stakeholders and national organizations, envisioned new possibilities for water conservation education using virtual reality, and shared solutions to clean water access on the global stage. 

“Our inaugural theme year yielded numerous positive outcomes, bringing students and the broader UMSI community together to address a critical social issue,” says Kelly Kowatch, director of UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office.

Here are our favorite moments from a year that made ripples.

Invasion of the giant goldfish 

A close-up of Rochelle Sturtevant with part of an on-screen presentation visible behind her
Rochelle Sturtevant

September: “How do goldfish get into the Great Lakes?” an audience member asked Rochelle Sturtevant, program manager at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, during her guest lecture at UMSI. They were surprised to see a common pet on the list of invasive species that plague the Great Lakes. 

Every May in Michigan, Sturtevant shared, there is an influx of goldfish to the Great Lakes. Why this timing? They’re released by college students moving out of their dorms. Freed from their fish bowls and introduced into bodies of water, goldfish grow huge — no longer the Nemo you thought you knew. They are considered invasive because they eat the eggs of other fish. 

Students in SI 307: Introduction to User Experience Design spent the semester redesigning the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, a public portal that provides the best available data on aquatic nonindigenous species in the Great Lakes. Their aim was to make this vital information more accessible to a wide pool of users — from fishermen to researchers to congress members. 

A visit from the Lieutenant Governor 

Elizabeth Yakel, Cliff Lampe and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II stand on stage in front of a screen projecting "UMSI theme year 2023-24: Water conservation and access"
From left, Elizabeth Yakel (C. Olivia Frost Collegiate Professor of Information), associate dean for academic affairs Cliff Lampe, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II 

September: Information professionals will be essential to solving our generation’s greatest challenges, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II told an audience of over 400 during his keynote talk at the University of Michigan. He said a course he took at UMSI as an undergraduate first introduced him to the concept of information asymmetry — “the notion that different people, different entities, have … different access to information” — which has fundamentally shaped how he thinks about the world and approaches problem solving. 

“Water management will be one of the challenges of our generation,” Gilchrist told students. “In order to understand how we can meet that challenge, we need smart, we need bold, we need connected information professionals to be part of the process.” 

Where land and water meet

Bright multicolored post-its cover a white table, with a prompt visible in the middle: "How might we leverage common homeowner tools to engage upstream residents about reducing harmful runoff?"

September: Collaboration with local and state organizations was key to understanding the complexity of water-related issues, Kowatch says. The Water and Land Use Design Jam at the UMSI Engagement Center connected students with the City of Ann Arbor and the Huron Watershed Council to explore the relationship between land use and water quality. 

During a fast-paced four hours, students applied the design thinking method to come up with creative information solutions to Huron River pollution. Their designs leveraged common homeowner tools to engage residents who live upstream in reducing harmful runoff from fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste and more. 

C. Crittenden attended as a first-year Master of Health Informatics student. “I wanted to get more of an idea of what [design thinking] would look like, because my background is in German and sociology,” they said. “Coming in and being able to construct an affinity wall helped prepare me more in terms of calming my nerves and getting some hands-on experience with an interdisciplinary team of, ‘Here's what we do. Here's how we do it. Let's go.’” Later in the semester, Crittenden explored water contamination in greater depth through their course project on Michigan’s septic system crisis

Water treatment with a side of… ice cream? 

Master of Science in Information students Carl Fan, Lindsey Dye and Kendall Scarborough  pose during a tour of the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant.
Master of Science in Information students Carl Fan, Lindsey Dye and Kendall Scarborough pose during a tour of the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant.

November: UMSI students toured the inner workings of Ann Arbor's water treatment plant. Water is sourced from the Huron River and local wells, filtered using granulated activated charcoal, and treated with three forms of disinfection: ozone (one of the most powerful agents available), chloramine and UV. Once treated and tested, it flows to our homes. 

Fun fact: Flocculation is a water treatment process where solids form larger clusters, or flocs, to be removed from water. This process looks like a slow-churning ice cream machine.

It's raining data

It's raining data

A photo with blossoming white flowers in the foreground and students, faculty, and staff engaged in rain garden cleanup with paper bags in the background
UMSI faculty, staff and students volunteered with the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office to clean up invasive vegetation in a rain garden in Lansdowne Park in Ann Arbor.
A group photo of Kolbe Sussman, Neha Nair, Gretchen Lam, Justin Villa, Susan Bryan, Charlotte Parent and Valeria Fraga
Students on the rain garden team at A2 Data Dive pose with community partner Susan Bryan.

March: The UMSI community dug into data on rain gardens during A2 (Ann Arbor) Data Dive. The one-day data hackathon challenges students to find solutions for local nonprofit and civic organizations. 

Community partner Susan Bryan runs Washtenaw County’s Master Rain Gardener Class, which trains community ambassadors to build their own rain gardens and help their neighbors do the same. 

“The program is so successful, our ability to track that success has become inadequate,” she explained. “I would like to see what story the data tells us about the journey of a rain gardener. What are the interventions that make the most difference? How long does it take for them to build their rain garden? Why don't they? Or why do they?”

Before students pulled up their spreadsheets and popped open cans of seltzer, Bryan thanked them. “Whatever you find out, I’m going to implement,” she said. “It will make a difference.” 

Sustainable solutions

Sustainable solutions

A student speaks with an Expo guest in front of a trifold poster about expanding clean water access for the homeless community.
Alexandra Balmaceda speaks with an Expo guest about her project with Nina Chen on expanding access to clean water for the homeless population.
An Exposition judge speaks with three students in front of their trifold poster
Cory Knobel (MSI 04, PhD 10), an Expo judge and UMSI advisory board member, talks with students about their data analysis project on phosphorus contamination in the Great Lakes.
A group stands in front of a banner with UMSI logos holding a large check
Faith Gowen poses with Cliff Lampe, associate dean for academic affairs, at the Expo award ceremony.

April: At the annual UMSI Student Project Exposition, many of the novel solutions on display were anchored in the theme of water — from a VR rain garden simulator, to an app that improves clean water access for the homeless population, to an analysis of the communities most at risk from phosphorus contamination in the Great Lakes. 

The posters on display at Expo represented months of research, collaboration and iteration. But for some teams, this was only the beginning. 

After earning first prize in the theme year category at Expo, Master of Science in Information students Nina Chen and Alexandra Balmaceda went on to win the global CHI 2024 Student Design Competition for their project, “Where’s the Water? Supporting Clean Water Access for the Homeless Community.” They hope to secure funding and launch the app — which maps nearby clean water sources like drinking fountains, public restrooms and showers — first in Ann Arbor, then statewide, nationwide and beyond.

Discover more about UMSI's theme year on water conservation and access: 

Read all the stories here

Abigail McFee, marketing and communications writer; 

photos by Jeffrey Smith, multimedia producer