By Naomi Shulman
Photographs by Brent M. Hale
It’s a tense geopolitical scene at the United Nations, as international experts from around the world address ambassadors from the United States, Bolivia, and New Zealand. They’re considering a deceptively simple question: Is water a basic human right? Passionate representatives of both public and private interests are debating who should control access to water. The human rights side makes a compelling ethical case: Private companies tend to set their products at expensive price points, caring more about their stockholders than those below the poverty line. But the privatization side is coming back with a strong economic argument: Corporations working to make a profit will work efficiently, while governments simply tax the populace and waste the money. The conversation is rhetorically heated. When the Bolivian ambassador questions whether privatized water would limit accessibility to those below the poverty line, a corporate lobbyist leans across the table and shuts him down. “Would your government really deprive its poorest citizens of water?” she says acidly, leaving the Bolivian ambassador stumbling for a response.
Soon the Secretary General closes the debate. Only it’s not the Secretary General. It’s science teacher Andy Harcourt, one of a triad of teachers running Deerfield’s new, two-year, two-section Advanced Placement capstone course. Harcourt, along with his colleagues Mike Schloat and Dave Miller, is shepherding his students—who today were world leaders on the national stage—through a new kind of course, one that depends less on a body of knowledge than it does a cadre of skills in research, rhetoric, and presentation.
The title in the course catalog is Global H20/American Currents, and as the name suggests, it’s a multidimensional, multiyear deep-dive into the challenges we face as water becomes an ever-diminishing resource. It’s also an experiment—a pilot of the AP College Board, which selected just fifteen schools to help them shape a new kind of research-heavy advanced placement course, one intended to train students to navigate the rough terrain that faces them in college and beyond. While traditional AP courses have tested students on their retention of knowledge, this one gauges how they approach a problem, gather data, and then make their case. And it’s attracted students right out of the gate. “I’m getting a solid understanding of a prevalent issue,” says Tripp Kaelin ’14 , one of the students in Deerfield’s pilot, “while improving a set of critical analysis skills that could be applied in any situation involving an argument or a debate.” Global H2O is technically a science course, but those critical analysis skills are the real key here.