ESA Collaboration: Water Resources

Project Overview

Today’s professionals can expect to teleconference into a meeting from halfway across the globe, working across time zones and borders to craft meaningful solutions to interdisciplinary problems. In these environments, technology has become the key mediating tool for productive cross-cultural collaboration.

It was with these issues in mind that Anna Milkowski, 2015-2016 Tang Fellow and Instructor in Biology, jumped at the chance to spearhead the creation of an interdisciplinary, intra-scholastic course with six other teachers from the Eight Schools Association (ESA). “How do we teach collaboration as a fundamental skill that students need to have in order to be functioning citizens and learners in a digital world?” asks Milkowski. “We weren’t sure, as schools, that we knew how to teach these skills well.” The course, entitled “Water and Humanity”, launched in the spring of 2015 and brought together 16 students from eight participating schools to work collaboratively on interest-driven projects investigating the role of water resources in human development.

Read the course description for the spring 2015 pilot!


Informed by a larger, national conversation on how best to prepare students for an increasingly globalized world, the goals of the “Water and Humanity” course were many. Meeting for the first time in person in January 2014, the eight teachers agreed that the group’s overarching project was to design a yearlong course on water for 2015-2016, with a pilot in spring 2015. The course itself, they hoped, would:

  • be problem and project based;
  • emphasize collaboration;
  • be interdisciplinary;
  • build 21st century competencies;
  • and, finally, be engaging for students.

For ESA, and the eight deans supporting the pilot course, the goals were a little broader:

  • To explore online learning and teaching opportunities. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have opened up a whole world for students who may not previously have had access to these materials or resources. “There might really be a power to this dimension of access that online learning offers,” Milkowski notes.
  • To experiment with classroom teaching. “Our schools excel at classroom learning—that’s our bread and butter at least. This wasn’t just the development of any online course. We wanted to move beyond that to ask how do you carry on a substantive conversation when it’s best had face to face?” says Milkowski.
  • To collaborate. “We wanted to be deliberate about tools and habits to foster online collaboration,” says Milkowski, noting the difficulty of carving out a schedule and getting comfortable with tools that allowed for meaningful collaboration. They also had to determine how best to assess collaborative work.
  • To develop teachers’ skills in technology and online collaboration tools. “As teachers, none of us had a lot of experience with online course development,” notes Milkowski. Constructing the syllabus for “Water and Humanity” was itself a “teaching experiment” in collaboration.

For Milkowski, as for other teachers, the goals were more specific:

  • To bring concrete takeaways back to the water course at Andover
  • To collaborate, learn, and explore
  • To consider how online modules—like the ones developed in “Water and Humanity— might be incorporated into mainstream courses.
Instructor School Department
Darcy Brewer Lawrenceville Science
Michael Eckert Hotchkiss History
Ivory Hills Deerfield Chemistry
Molly MacKean Exeter History
Anna Milkowski Andover Biology
Oliver Morris Choate Classics
Brian Schroyer St. Paul’s Art
Sarah Warren Northfield Mount Herman Religion and Philosophy


The folllowing individuals have also provided key support throughout the project:

  • Peter Warsaw, Academic Dean at Deerfield
  • Academic Deans at all eight schools
  • Various technology experts behind the scenes
  • Jeff Licht and Ina Conveney, Pod Consulting

The Pilot

Scheduling. During the semester, the students and teachers held face-to-face discussions, participated in seminars by teleconference, and worked online in intra-school teams. An early challenge was finding a time for everyone to meeting, said Milkowski, especially since the eight schools ran on different academic and athletic schedules. All 16 students held “sync meetings” every other Wednesday from 8:00 p.m. to 8:50 p.m., which is when formal lesson material was covered, led by a different teacher each time.

>> Other teachers

>> Syllabus

Ongoing assessment. Students were asked to write written reflections on readings, group projects, discussions, and their own experiences in the course. Each of the teachers was responsible for “sponsoring” and grading one assignment. Especially challenging towards the end of the term was how to assess collaborative projects. How do you “grade” interest-based learning in a way that is mindful of different learning styles, yet fair to members who had done more work than others? For example, Milkowski recalls “moments where we were grading papers and it seemed clear that students hadn’t read each others papers. That made things much more difficult.”

Final projects. The course culminated in final, student-centered projects broken down into teams. Each group chose one of four scripted projects on water and human development, ranging from researching water distribution infrastructure in Akha, Ghana, to designing a model city on Mars. Students were asked to investigate one of these real-world problems with some of the analytic frameworks studied throughout the course of the term, and, finally, to propose a feasible solution.

Again, the groups ran into difficulty scheduling students running on various school schedules. “One group could only find time to meet at 10:30 on a Friday night,” says Milkowski. “They couldn’t meet at any reasonable time.” The quality of the collaborations often deteriorated as a result. Students sometimes “took on a divide and conquer strategy,” which, Milkowski, notes, defeats the purpose of collaborating to find a solution.

Milkowski also noted the challenge of balancing “a project carried by student interested versus [teachers] having a deep sense of what students need to know about water.” Ultimately, though, the projects were “very imaginative.”


Milkowski and the other teachers worked behind-the-scenes with Pod Client, a consulting firm that “really helped to corral the project.” Pod introduced a host of tools with which they experimented throughout the course, including:

  • GoToMeeting, a tool for teleconferencing as a large group, which the students did every other week.
  • Google Blog, where the students posted their completed assignments each week. >> link
  • Canvas, as a “hub” for all relevant course materials. Teachers were able to organize and grade submitted assignments.
  • Email, as the primary method of communication among teachers
  • Facebook, Skype, texting, Google hangout, which students used to connect. 

Testing the technology required a little bit of trial and error, says Milkowski. Once, for example, the teachers realized that the students had written and posted their reflections to the blog but had not included their names. “It was the things you don’t think of,” Milkowski says. “I had to tailor my own vision for the project knowing the extent of this online medium.” Nevertheless, using these tools in a classroom has forced her to think more deeply about how to best teach students to use them. “We might ask students to make a video, for example. But how do you teach that? What tools are out there to teach video-making?” 

Milkowski – water course – go to meeting2
Andover students teleconferenced into meetings with classmates.
Milkowski – water course – go to meeting1
Bi-weekly sync meetings took place on GoToMeeting, with participants from Choate, Deerfield, Hotchkiss, Lawrenceville, Northfield Mount Herman, Andover, and Exeter.


  • April 13, 2015: SPS students Christina Kim ’15 and Alyssa Ingerman ’15 talk about their research on the Merrimack River watershed as part of the “Water and Humanity” hybrid course. (2 minute read) 
  • Fall 2014: In this “Table Talk” published by the Exeter BulletinExeter Director of Studies Laura Marshall discusses the role of hybrid learning in the school’s curriculum. The intent of the collaboration, Marshall says, “was to see if there was a way to design courses that would provide added benefit to each of our schools and that would allow us to [offer] something that each individually would not be able to do.” (3 minute read) 
  • April 7, 2014: Saint Paul’s School’s Dean of Studies Alisa Barnard announces “Water and Humanity” as the school’s first online course. “The fear around the phrase ‘online learning’ is that it is impersonal, one-way. But the fact is that the tools have evolved rapidly in the last few years to allow for the creation of an independent school classroom, even in the virtual sphere. There will be a low teacher-student ratio and a real opportunity for teachers and students to get to know one another. These classes will take all of those things that make our classrooms distinct, including learning driven by questions and discussions. It fits in with what we are all trying to do with building a learner-centered education.” (4 minute read)