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WE THINKS: A Water Education Summit

Water educators, program directors, and industry members gathered to discuss how to get youth thinking

Over 30 educators, program directors and water industry members gathered at the University of Wisconsin last week to discuss and explore changes in water education. The discussion revolved around how to get youth thinking and specifically how to include teaching thinking within existing water education lessons.

Thinking Skill

This idea of including thinking skills into water education lessons was presented at WE Thinks: A Water Education Summit hosted by the University of Wisconsin Extension, ThinkWater and the USDA/NIFA. Participants from around the country heard about and engaged in the process of prescribing how to increase the impact of existing water education curriculum.

The idea that including foundational and explicit thinking skills into existing lessons is part of a multi-year grant that is being led by a group called ThinkWater. The concept of helping educators inject thinking skills was demonstrated for the group and called, “the next big thing in water education.”


The event’s director and co-founder of Cabrera Research Lab, Laura Cabrera, says that the summit provided a new way of looking at the challenges that all educators, not just water-specific educators, face when attempting to create behavioral change in youth.

“We see that in too many cases our efforts in teaching and educating are focused on memorizing and not enough on creating situations for students to think, create their own knowledge, and build new solutions to our long-term problems. We’re attempting to combine thinking skills into water education because it can and will be a model for success here and in all other fields of education,” says Cabrera.

The attendees walked through the ideas of how thinking is a crucial component of breaking out of the “information only” paradigm of many existing lessons, where students receive information from instruction and then repeat that information back. Instead, cognitive research demonstrates that by getting youth to engage thinking along with content, that a deeper understanding and behavioral change can be gained.

Additional sessions, extended the lessons that water education can and should undergo a change for the benefit of students and the benefit of other fields. If these thinking skills are built into these lessons and reinforced in other subject areas all content areas can benefit from greater understanding.

The basis for the thinking skills themselves is a rich approach to how humans cognitively process information at a base level. These concepts were presented by cognitive scientist, Dr. Derek Cabrera. More information on these foundational items can be found through the ThinkWater website at

Creative  Thinking
The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the University of Wisconsin Extension and developed by ThinkWater, a USDA/NIFA grantee working on recasting current water education curriculum to include thinking skills.

Kate Reilly, an Environmental Education Specialist at UW – Extension and part of the ThinkWater Leadership Team, promoted the event to her colleagues in Wisconsin because she sees the power of this new methodology. She says, that ThinkWater shows educators how to modify their existing water education activities so they, and their students, can recognize if or when thinking occurs. “The potential for this strategy to increase the impacts of adult and youth water education in Wisconsin and the nation is huge,” says Reilly. If the concept of including thinking into not just water education content but into all topics takes hold, these water educators will have truly been a part of the next big thing in water education and ironically, it won’t have actually been about water.

We Think

Some of the proceedings of the Summit (November 3rd through 5th) were released on Twitter at #WEThinks2014

Overview of Thinkwater:
ThinkWater is a national project sponsored by the USDA and designed by educators, scientists and activists in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Extension to add thinking skills and awareness into existing water education lessons. The modified lessons and their delivery will create Water Thinkers – people who care about and deeply understand water and the issues surrounding it. The idea is based on research that shows that "meta-thinking" (metacognition or awareness of thinking) is a critical and missing component in all education. The Vision & Mission is to Engage, Educate, and Empower a World of Water Thinkers. Videos and other resources available at

Twitter: @waterthinkers #WEThinks2014