Engineering and political science students collaborate on real-world water issues
Students shared perspectives from across disciplines to help communities overcome challenges to provide clean and accessible water to their residents.
Rural communities face a variety of challenges, specifically in terms of providing accessible and safe drinking water. At a time when advocates are working to have access to clean, affordable water declared a basic human right, some local governments are finding it harder to provide that service equitably to low-income communities.
Limited planning in the past, significant infrastructure costs, and competing stakeholder priorities all contribute to the issue’s complexity.
Complex problems require innovative solutions, and innovation is best achieved through transdisciplinary work. This spring, students in civil and environmental engineering and political science came together for a joint class session to discuss a case study of a complex water issue faced by a local government in Virginia. Students had the opportunity to interact with the mayor of that town, to bring classroom theory to a practical exercise, and to gain exposure to each other’s disciplinary perspectives.
Phil Miskovic, or “Mayor Phil” as he’s known to his students, is a Ph.D student in the Center for Administration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs. He has been the mayor of Crewe, Virginia, since 2020.
In 2022, Miskovic came across a VTx article about Landon Marston’s research on how data centers affect water supplies. Marston, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, focuses his research on water systems and their challenges, some of which Crewe was facing.
Miskovic contacted Marston, and they developed a plan to bring together their fields of knowledge to find solutions to these challenges. “Water problems are often multifaceted, involving technical, environmental, economic, legal, social, and political considerations,” said Marston.
He and Miskovic decided to hold a joint lecture bringing together students from a water resources planning class and a state and local government class. They would brainstorm solutions for rural communities trying to provide secure, accessible, and clean water to residents.
During the joint class, students were presented with a case study involving Crewe, a small socio-economically disadvantaged community in Nottoway County, approximately three hours from Blacksburg. According to Miskovic, the town is in the middle of a complex issue involving water, competing stakeholders, and a data center.
“Two-thirds of Crewe’s water revenue comes from the sale of water to three state facilities just outside of town limits,” he said. “With the expansion of one of the facilities, there are concerns about Crewe’s water capacity given its aging infrastructure.”
Losing the state facilities as customers would have a devastating impact on Crewe, said Miskovic. The town would lose an estimated $1.2 million in revenue annually, or approximately a quarter of its annual budget. Base water rates for the rest of the town's customers would need to increase by a minimum of 300 percent, and overage fees would need to double — all of this in a community where the median household income is less than $46,000.
Students were given this information along with other factors including the cost of improving Crewe’s water system and options to partner with nearby communities.
The main goal of the class session was to get the students thinking strategically about complex issues, re-emphasize the importance of planning, and encourage transdisciplinary conversation to gain new perspective. Civil and environmental engineering students brought knowledge about the planning process and specific data points needed for developing alternatives, while political science students identified issues that constrain local governments like capacity, resource and path dependence, and limited expertise.
“The goal of this exercise was to have students from different disciplinary backgrounds come up with solutions and ideas together,” Marston said. “This gives students an opportunity to come up with solutions in an interdisciplinary setting, much like they would in a real-world setting.”
“This kind of work allows students in disparate fields to collaborate, if only for a brief time,” said Miskovic. “This is especially important because once they graduate, policymakers, public administrators, and other social scientists will work with subject matter experts like engineers regularly. They will need to be able to communicate with each other, understand the other’s perspective, and find common ground on issues.”
For now, the challenges that Crewe is facing have not been fully resolved, but the student collaboration brought potential solutions to the conversation that the town can consider moving forward. Furthermore, students got a small taste of real-world collaboration between engineering and political science.
“Since freshman year, my classes have focused on engineering-specific problems with other engineering students,” said Johanna Capone, a civil and environmental engineering student. “This class, however, provided the opportunity to engage with political science students and see socio-economic water problems from a different perspective. It was truly inspiring and challenging to collaborate our perspective fields to work toward a solution for the Town of Crewe.”
Phil Miskovic and Landon Marston contributed to this article