Studying problem, serving community

If you don’t know Alex Webster, one scroll through her Twitter feed will give you a glimpse at the funny, spunky, smart research faculty member who is bringing community into the UNM classroom.

Webster

Alex Webster

Her passion for water sustainability, shown on Twitter through emojis, photos and colorful graphs, is the foundation of a new class at The University of New Mexico. Following a model of transdisciplinary research, she utilizes data sets from stakeholders around the state to teach students data analysis.

“Three words I would use to describe the course are motivating, engaging, and impactful,” she says. “It’s a way for students to get hands-on experience, but also learn data analysis and create professional connections outside the University that they will carry forward in their careers.”

The course was offered for Biology or Earth and Planetary Science credit during the summer semester. Seven graduate students took part, and each student was paired with a specific stakeholder or agency to solve a specific data problem.

Webster joined The University of New Mexico in the Summer of 2021 as a Resilience Professor, researching water sustainability and resilience as part of UNM’s Grand Challenge on Water Sustainability. Her attitude towards teaching, outreach and service brings the unique perspective of transdisciplinary research to the Grand Challenge– addressing societal problems by means of interdisciplinary collaboration as well as collaboration between researchers and extra-academic stakeholders.

“We start out with these students getting a crash course on water resources in New Mexico,” she explained. “I’ve found that students are more motivated to study complex sustainability problems when the questions they’re answering are from real-world land and water managers. This class harnesses that motivation, teaching students how to respectfully engage with stakeholders while also learning the science of data analysis.”

The class tackles data sets that community entities haven’t had the time to synthesis. With Webster as a guide, students provide stakeholders with reproducible methods, a technical report, and a plain language summary that answers their questions about the data set.

“This is a double win – it’s a huge opportunity for students to engage with the local water and land management community. And it provides the community with a resource to help them analyze their data,” Webster explained. “The community groups were so excited to work with students and ended up being really great mentors, bringing different perspectives.”

Students worked with the:

  • Interstate Stream Commission
  • USGS Water Science Center
  • Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve
  • Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources
  • Cibola National Forest
  • Quivira Coalition

They assessed the impact of Sandia Ski Area’s water use on the Rosy Finch bird habitat; quantified wetland area increases due to restoration efforts for Cutthroat Trout using satellite data; and built a statistical model to predict cost-effectiveness of restoration strategies.

Students also created a program to automatically process and quantify streamflow contributions to Rio Grande from ephemeral streams and built statistical models to predict drying in the Middle Rio Grande.

“These are broad and challenging problems, but very much embody part of the mission of the Grand Challenge on Water Sustainability – developing stakeholder networks and relationships while training the next generation of data-driven water managers and researchers,” Webster concluded.

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