ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative gives students new perspective on water issues

Jul 19, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 4:43 am

Colorado River...

This Aug. 20, 2019 image shows the Colorado River flowing south of Page, Arizona. A plan by Utah could open the door to the state pursuing an expensive pipeline that critics say could further deplete Lake Powell, which is a key indicator of the Colorado River's health. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

PHOENIX — Arizona State University is exploring ways to tackle water issues in a unique way: combining facts and figures with storytelling.

ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative brings students from a variety of disciplines together to explore mediums from writing to audio, photography and water is their new objective.

“We try to focus on important, urgent issues of the day and look at different storytelling approaches to address them,” Professor Steven Beschloss, the Initiative’s founding director explained. “Water became something we just realized needed to require more attention.”

In this case, ‘storytelling’ means the ways information is presented. The courses challenge students to think about water issues – and how the public consumes that information – differently.

“A lot of the people in the class are engineering students or hydrologists or sustainability students,” Beschloss said. “They learned how to do an academic paper, but they hadn’t necessarily learned how to tell a story so that they can touch a wider population of people.”

The storytelling initiatives are informed by a variety of ASU courses that bring mediums like photography, creative writing, music and visual art into the fold. They can then be applied to data about everything from floods to water problems faced by individual cities to the ways water affects consumers or farmers.

“There was a student that did a series of photographs that showed us something like a cellphone, then explained that a single cellphone requires thousands of gallons of water to be manufactured,” Beschloss said.

A project by ASU student Michelle Downey featured slickly-presented photos of everyday items coated in droplets of water. Instead of being an ad for things like candy bars or a glass of wine. However, each photo featured the water consumption of each product in bold type at the bottom.

Beschloss explained projects like this are an exploration of how to present data about water in a way that reaches people.

“This is about trying to increase empathy, trying to increase urgency,” he added. “It assumes that people don’t learn in one way, whether it’s students [or] the general public.”

He said that means thinking outside the box to affect change – whether that means increasing awareness of water issues or educating people on the latest data.

“Most of us may read about water shortages from the Colorado River, or complicated decision making, but it may not touch peoples’ individual lives,” Beschloss said. “[If] these stories can be told with a human dimension, I think it gives people the ability to empathize with others and feel like ‘maybe this problem is something I should care more about.’”

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ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative gives students new perspective on water issues