Thursday, July 13, 2017

Save the World: With a Little Help From Your Friends

If there is one thing that I have learned to be true, it is that most problems need to be solved using an interdisciplinary approach. In fact, the reason I applied for the LAKES REU program is because of how interdisciplinary it is: economics, sociology, geography, biology and anthropology all working together to improve water quality in the Red Cedar Watershed. It is interesting how solitary all of these disciplines seem until you begin to tackle one project together. Elise and I are on the sociology team and have been administering a survey to farmers to learn more about their agricultural practices, values, and networks of how agricultural knowledge is shared in the area. However, a lot of this information needs more background. Luckily, a lot of my questions that naturally arise from this project can be answered by my peers. From the economics standpoint, how do farmers afford to transition from traditional practices to conservation agriculture? Biologically, how can phosphorus pollution be mitigated? Anthropologically, how do people remember water quality changing throughout the years? These, and MANY other questions are being explored by the diverse backgrounds on our team.

            Because of these questions that transverse disciplines, we are encouraged to spend a few days working with other teams. I had a very enjoyable day helping the biology team, Sarah and Bailey, set up rafts with floating plants to explore if these plants can utilize phosphorus from the lake. It was wonderful to be able to get outside and see first hand the effects of runoff on the water quality. However, the team that I have worked most closely with is one of the economic teams, Ryleigh and Madison. Ryleigh and Madison are exploring the economic impacts of tourism and asking questions about spending patterns by visitors and how a cleaner lake would be able to benefit the local economy.
Elise and I spent two days with Ryleigh and Madison surveying tourists in Chetek, a town with a beautifully clean lake and booming tourism. The first day that we surveyed was the fourth of July, and we set up a table with surveys and free popsicles during the parade. We had a few curious people (and many popsicle lovers) but once the parade started the focus was understandably elsewhere. The second day, we set up the table at the Hydroflights show, a great attraction for locals and tourists alike. People were very generous with their time and willing to take the survey and show interest in the overall project…very encouraging! Ryleigh and Madison also spent the morning collecting surveys that they had dropped off at local resorts in an effort to collect as many data as possible before we spend the next few weeks on analysis.

This work is very beneficial to our sociology project in many ways. First, we are able to explore a different way of surveying (Elise and I have driven door to door or done phone calls to speak with different farmers rather than set up booths) and thus were able to speak to a different demographic of people. Secondly, keeping economics in mind is important both because the idea of bolstering the local economy gives extra motivation to the overall project goals, and because money can often be a limiting factor in terms of what changes farmers can make. As a long term benefit to my higher education goals, I am realizing how vital interdisciplinary work is in order to see the whole picture. I know that this project will forever serve as an example of teamwork and collaboration to solve real world issues and I am inspired to continue working on such important projects in the future.

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