By: Colin Flanner, Intern & Student Chapter Liaison for The Water Council and Student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
This year a new course out of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences (SFS) recently became available to undergraduates at the main campus on the Upper East Side of Milwaukee. Freshwater 190 Topics in Freshwater Sciences is being taught by SFS Professor John Janssen and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Great Lakes reporter Dan Egan.
The undergraduate natural science course is very open-ended and organic, with much of the class spent on recapping the chapters in Dan’s book Death and Life of the Great Lakes – a MUST read if you live on or near these freshwater inland seas – and talking about related present-day issues and happenings involving the Great Lakes and their immense watershed. Since our class is the first one ever for this course, we largely decide its focus by asking questions about certain topics or issues. The students get to pick the direction of the course.
John and Dan talked a lot prior to the course getting established at UWM. Dan would often ask John questions about his articles in the Journal Sentinel and his book. He eventually expressed interest in teaching a course with John. “If he didn’t ask I would’ve asked,” John told me one day during an ‘impromptu’ interview after class. In the end, John says it was about a profound realization that the general public, although they live close to Lake Michigan, they really do not know much about it.
John says it comes down to “one profound message – get people to care.” And that is exactly what Dan’s book is about. It is not just about explaining the science to people, although he is pretty good at it, but about getting people to care about the Lakes and what goes on in and around them.
Topics covered in the course range from ballast water discharges and engineering projects of the past (like the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal) that have adjusted the natural ecosystem, to nonpoint source pollution and the immense challenges it poses to the Lakes. John is very adamant about what I call ‘bulimic studying’ – cramming information in senselessly and flushing it all out on exam day, retaining very little in the end.
“Having the two instructors we have – a scientist who studies fish and works on the Lakes regularly and a reporter who solely covers the Great Lakes – makes the class that more interesting.”
“Don’t take notes on this!” he tells us frequently when explaining a concept. The whole class is very organic, approachable and informative. Having the two instructors we have – a scientist who studies fish and works on the Lakes regularly and a reporter who solely covers the Great Lakes – makes the class that more interesting. It is infectious the passion these two have for the Lakes and their health.
In the end, the class is about passing on knowledge and passion about the region we live in. When I asked John, “why teach the course – what is the end goal?” he said “it’s like I try to put myself in your heads – you’re going to drive through Chicago and you’re going to have an opportunity to teach somebody, so don’t waste it.”
Pictured below: Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Great Lakes reporter, class instructor and author; John Janssen, School of Freshwater Sciences professor.