A year of water, everywhere

Water is ubiquitous. We bathe in it, consume it and cook with it. We paddle over it, dive into it and skim the surface of it. And we witness political battles that are waged over it, communities across the globe that search for ways to get it and artists who seek to capture the spirit of water in art, poetry and literature.

To explore this big topic properly, the Office of the Provost has named the 2010-11 academic year the Year of Water. Starting in September, the Penn community, and specifically first-year students, will participate in an interdisciplinary series of talks, conferences, discussions, tours and exhibits around the theme of water.

The theme year is a way to introduce students to Penn’s multidisciplinary offerings across the 12 schools, and is a way for students to get a handle on such a big place. “The vision for this came out of a desire to create a common experience for undergraduates, a social and intellectual experience,” says Rob Nelson, director for education in the Provost’s Office.

One of the cornerstones of the theme year is the Penn Reading Project (PRP), an introduction to University academic life. This year’s book, which all incoming freshmen will read and discuss on Sept. 5 as part of New Student Orientation, is Rose George’s nonfiction work, “The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.” George, a Penn alumna, will also speak at Penn during the Year of Water.

Nelson says the theme year informed the PRP selection, as it did in 2009, when students “read” Thomas Eakins’ painting, “The Gross Clinic” as the kickoff to the Arts & The City Year, and in 2008, when freshmen read “Your Inner Fish” as a start to the Year of Evolution. The very first theme, the Year of Food, was inspired by that year’s PRP selection, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Most of the Year of Water events are yet-to-be-determined, but Nelson already knows a conference in late October, sponsored by the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, will be integrated into the theme year. There also will be a major speaker in January or February of 2011 to kick off the spring semester.

The Penn community can get a head start on the Year of Water with an exhibit that opens on March 30 and runs through April 5 at Claire M. Fagin Hall, 418 Curie Blvd.(though the show will return sometime during the 2010-11 academic year). The exhibit, “Potable Art: Ceramic Filters Improving Global Health,” features household ceramic filtration devices for use in areas without safe drinking water. The idea behind hosting the show now, explains Leo Charney, director of communications and external affairs in the Provost’s Office, is to bridge the Arts & The City Year and the Year of Water.

Another key component is the Year of Water Grants Program, which offers students, faculty and staff opportunities to apply for $750 grants to create and participate in projects about or related to water. Faculty and staff projects must engage students as the primary participants, and groups must be comprised of at least 80 percent students. Additional funding for larger-scale projects will also be available.

All of the events are a way to put into practice the Penn Compact principle of integrating knowledge, says Charney. “The Year of Water has great potential. It touches on engineering, it touches on literature, it touches on art, it touches on dentistry, public health.”

Nelson adds: “It’s hard to get a handle on [a big place like Penn], so in some ways it’s a handle that’s going to change every year so you can reach out and grab some aspect of the Penn experience. ... For me, and for other folks who are here longer than the average student, it’s also a window into some of the really great things that are here but are sometimes hard to see.”

For more information, contact David Fox in College Houses and Academic Services at dfox@upenn.edu or 215-573-5636.

Originally published March 25, 2010

Originally published on March 25, 2010