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Exploring Sustainability in Jordan

Published: July 11, 2015

More than 2,500 years ago, residents of the ancient city of Petra built a sophisticated water management system that sustained a thriving center of commerce in the rocky desert of what is now Jordan.

The Treasury in Petra

The rock-cut Treasury in the ancient city of Petra.

Today, Petra is an archaeological gem and a World Heritage Site. The designation has spurred a rush of economic development and tourism, which in turn is putting environmental pressure on the fragile structures at the site and displacing local residents who have lived in the area for generations.

How can Jordanians sustain the rich cultural heritage of Petra while addressing current economic and social needs and realities? More broadly, what do sustainable environmental, cultural, and political practices look like?

Those are among the questions that 15 faculty from five ACM colleges will explore this summer in Jordan, a place where people have struggled throughout history to create and maintain sustainable societies in the face of ongoing challenges that continue to the present day.

Seminar leaders

Katherine Adelsberger (top), Daniel Beers, and Danielle Fatkin.

A learning community in a compelling location

The faculty are participating in the 2015 SAIL professional development seminar, titled Sustainability on the Margins. On July 20-30 they will travel to Jordan's capital city of Amman, where their itinerary will be packed with visits to sites such as Petra, along with lectures by experts, and discussions with staff from NGOs, government officials, and local residents.

This is the fourth in a series of five Seminars in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL) supported by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program is designed to build a multi-disciplinary learning community of ACM faculty who explore a broad, compelling topic at a location that provides rich resources for study, and then use that experience as a foundation to create new curricular materials that emphasize advanced, interdisciplinary analysis and problem-solving.

The topic and syllabus have been developed by three Knox College professors who comprise the seminar's leadership team: Katherine Adelsberger (environmental studies), Daniel Beers (political science), and Danielle Fatkin (history). They will lead most site visits and discussions, with contributions from the other seminar participants from Coe, Cornell, Macalester, and St. Olaf Colleges.

The seminar will address the overarching theme of sustainability by focusing on issues related to water resources, cultural heritage, and refugees – issues that correspond to the expertise and research interests that Adelsberger, Beers, and Fatkin bring to the project.

In the weeks leading up to their departure, the faculty have engaged in online discussions of readings and resources compiled by the leaders. "We're trying to get the ball rolling with readings that we think would be useful, either as background [for the site visits] or in the future as readings for the upper-level undergraduate students that the course development is aimed at," said Fatkin.

Once the group arrives in Jordan, more than a dozen site visits are lined up, including:

  • Quseir Amra and frescos

    Quseir Amra and some of the frescos.

    Quseir Amra, a World Heritage Site that includes an early Islamic bathhouse built in the 8th century and elaborately decorated with beautiful fresco paintings influenced by Roman and Byzantine art motifs. An expert on Islamic art will give a talk about the cultural significance of the frescos and the group will also consider how the water management for the complex has been sustained in its desert location over time.
  • A rural village with a large population of refugees, where the group will meet and have lunch with members of the community, and a site visit in Amman to the Collateral Repair Project, an organization that has worked with successive waves of refugees, including Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians.
  • The Sharhabil Bin Hassneh EcoPark (SHE) in the Jordan River Valley, to learn about efforts to rehabilitate and preserve ecological habitats through sustainable development and ecotourism.

"The point of these SAIL seminars is to develop teaching materials, modules, courses," Adelsberger noted. "We're going to try to facilitate that [during our time in Jordan] with some activities where we're thinking about syllabi and about how this material can be used in a classroom."

Broad impact on courses, teaching, and research

As part of the SAIL application process, the faculty proposed curricular projects that they plan to work on when they return from Jordan. Comments from the leaders show how the seminar can have a broader impact on the participants’ teaching and research agendas.

The SAIL seminar has been an opportunity "to integrate my research into my teaching more, to really think through how I incorporate my research into my pedagogy and make those connections more direct."

-Danielle Fatkin

Participating in the SAIL seminar is giving Beers the opportunity to expand his knowledge of the Middle East, an area that is crucial to international politics and currently at the forefront of students' interests. He sees the current refugee crisis in Jordan as an excellent case study to use for a project he assigns in an international development class.

"For that project, the students are researching and finding their own resources on a problem that is perplexing policy-makers at the moment," he explained, "so information changes and they can find new data that I don't even have. I think it adds a sense of urgency and a certain element of realism to the case study that I think has been really effective."

"This seminar has helped me understand better what's happening [in the Middle East] and make connections to other parts of the world where I have more expertise," Beers noted. "It's been really helpful for my development as a scholar."

Adelsberger aims to engage her students with the complexity of Jordan's thorny water-related issues through case study modules in her course on hydrology and other courses that deal with research use.

Azraq Wetland Reserve

The seminar group will visit the Azraq Wetland Reserve (above) which has undergone dramatic ecological change as water has been pumped from it to supply Amman.

Often there simply are not many, or even any, good solutions to water scarcity in Jordan, and the lack of water places constant stress on the country and its people, she said. "Specifically, I'll be talking [in my courses] about the reasons for those stresses and how that plays out on the ground in terms of politics and decision-making in the governmental sectors."

According to Fatkin, working on the SAIL seminar has been an opportunity "to integrate my research into my teaching more, to really think through how I incorporate my research into my pedagogy and make those connections more direct."

For a seminar she teaches on Roman imperialism, she plans to examine how ancient people in the area that is now Jordan applied engineering techniques to solve local environmental problems and how, in turn, the Roman Empire facilitated the spread of those technologies.

In addition, Fatkin said, "One of the things that we'll be doing [in Jordan] is thinking through how we balance often opposing priorities in terms of sustainability – the human factor versus the cultural resource factor…. The work I'm doing with cultural resource management will help feed into a new museum studies program that we're building at Knox, [especially in] the ethics of collecting and finding cultural resources and how that fits into preservation in a museum setting."

Photos of Petra, Quseir Amra, and the Azraq Wetland Reserve are courtesy of Katherine Adelsberger.


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