“Water, Life, and Death” course exposes Montclair State University students to the many dimensions of water in Public Health

Guest author Kurt Conklin, Instructional Specialist in the College of Community Health, Montclair State University Dept. of Public Health, shares information about their water class in anticipation of Jersey Water Works Membership Meeting at Montclair University this summer. 

Water is the starting point for all public health, not just in New Jersey but worldwide. This summer, two dozen Montclair undergraduates will learn that water is both a force for creation (life depends on it) and destruction (tropical storms and floods have devastated parts of New Jersey).

The Public Health elective, “Water, Life, and Death” is an intensive, four-week asynchronous online course open to all students regardless of major. While most students who enroll are majors or minors in Montclair’s Bachelor’s degree program in Public Health, anyone interested in history, sociology, and even gender studies can find much to engage them in this course.

The course was launched two summers ago in 2022 when Montclair’s Public Health faculty brainstormed new directions to expand our course offerings. Traditionally, we’ve trained New Jersey’s Public Health workforce with an emphasis on community health education, administration of health systems, and advocacy for better public health policy. While water has always been an essential issue in all these fields, never before had we placed water front and center so that students could study its many dimensions. It’s the social justice issue that sometimes hides in plain sight.

The core text for the course is about the history of public pools in the US: Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America explains the evolution of municipal pools from being 19th-century bathing facilities for people without indoor plumbing, to early 20th century centers for cultivation of physical fitness and prevention of juvenile delinquency, and on to mid-century social gathering spots where swimsuit fashions and bare skin could be put on display. 

Wiltse shows how, underlying this transformation of the public pool, a hard-to-change attitude of racism and White supremacy restricted access to swim facilities for people of color. One of the consequences of this history is the continued disproportionate number of drownings every year among Black and Brown Americans, whose access to swim lessons and safe swim facilities continues to be restricted due to our nation’s underinvestment in water equity.

Students also view and write reactions to the feature film from India, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story). Based on a real-life story, the movie follows a newlywed couple in rural India who must resolve a fundamental conflict: the groom’s household has no indoor plumbing, nor does the town, and the women’s “bathroom” is the pastureland on the outskirts, where they experience humiliation and sexual harassment from male passersby. The groom’s tradition-minded father is a priest who believes indoor plumbing would “pollute” domestic life. Only after the bride organizes the local women to advocate for change does the groom get the courage to join his spouse in demanding (and getting) flush toilets.

The PBS Frontline documentary Flint’s Deadly Water also shows students what can happen when the effects of water infrastructure and public health investments are neglected. While many people know about the lead contamination of public water in Flint, Michigan, fewer know that the crisis was followed by an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease due to a failure of the state and county governments to monitor the water supply for bacterial contaminants properly.

The four-week cycle of Water, Life, and Death wraps up by helping students connect the dots between global water concerns and those right here in New Jersey. Students learn about Jersey Water Works and its efforts to achieve clean, safe, and equitable water outcomes for all New Jerseyans. The course aims to show students that water is not just a public health issue but a matter of engaged participation in any successful democracy. 

Elianny Grullon, a Public Health major in her senior year with a concentration in Community Health Education, reflected on her experience in this course by saying, “I feel one’s environment impacts their knowledge. As an immigrant raised in a minority community, learning about water quite honestly wasn’t a top priority. Enrolling in this course, I wasn’t expecting to find so many connections to my personal life, all while enjoying learning about the significance of clean resources.”

Marisa Person, an undergraduate who will earn her Bachelor’s degree in Public Health, reflected that “The course Water, Life, and Death has been valuable for several reasons. First, it has educated me on the importance of having access to clean water and how on a global level so many people still lack access to adequate water. Second, it explored the legal, political, and economic dimensions of water rights, but most importantly, how water intersects with equity and public health issues.”

This course can be offered as an elective for graduate-level students pursuing Montclair’s Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. The graduate students are required to complete a project in which they must design a data-collection tool with Qualtrics survey software, asking questions about people’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about water. After collecting their data from participants who have consented to answer the questions, graduate students analyze the findings and report the results. 

For more information on this course or on Montclair’s Public Health degree programs, please contact Kurt Conklin (conklink@montclair.edu).

On July 17,  join Jersey Water Works and Lead-Free NJ collaboratives at Montclair State University  for their membership meeting. The theme of the meeting is healthy communities. Register today for free!

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