Watermarks: An Art/Science Framework for Community-Engaged Learning Around Water and Water Management in an Urban Area

September 1st, 2021 - August 31st, 2025 | PROJECT

Milwaukee has established itself as a leader in water management and technology, hosting a widely recognized cluster of industrial, governmental, nonprofit, and academic activity focused on freshwater. At the same time, Milwaukee faces a wide range of challenges with freshwater, some unique to the region and others common to cities throughout the country. These challenges include vulnerability to flooding and combined sewer overflows after heavy rainfall, biological and pharmaceutical contamination in surface water, lead in drinking water infrastructure, and inequity in access to beaches and other recreational water amenities. Like other cities, Milwaukee grapples with the challenges global climate change imposes on urban water systems, including changing patterns of precipitation and drought.

These problems are further complicated by Milwaukee's acute racial and economic residential segregation. With a population of approximately 595,000, embedded within a metropolitan area of over 1.5 million, Milwaukee remains one of the country's most segregated cities. There is increasing urgency to engage the public--and especially those who are most vulnerable to environmental impacts--more deeply in the stewardship of urban water and in the task of creating sustainable urban futures. The primary goal of this four-year project is to foster community-engaged learning and environmental stewardship by developing a framework that integrates art with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) experiences along with geography, water management, and social science. Synergies between STEM learning and the arts suggest that collaborations among artists, scientists, and communities can open ways to bring informal learning about the science of sustainability to communities.

WaterMarks provides an artist generated conceptual framework developed by Mary Miss / City as Living Laboratory (CALL) to help people better understand their relationship to the water systems and infrastructure that support their lives. Project activities include artist/scientist/community member-led Walks, which are designed to engage intergenerational participants both from the neighborhoods and from across the city, in considering the conditions, characteristics, histories, and ecosystems of neighborhoods. Walks are expanded upon in Workshops with residents, local scientists/experts, and other stakeholders, and include exploring current water-related environmental challenges and proposing solutions. The Workshops draw on diverse perspectives, including lived experience, scientific knowledge, and policy expertise. Art projects created by local artists amplify community engagement with the topics, including programming for teens and young adults. Free Wi-Fi will be integrated into various Marker sites around the city providing access to online, self-guided learning opportunities exploring the water systems and issues facing surrounding neighborhoods. Current programming focuses primarily on Milwaukee's predominantly African American near North Side and the predominantly Latinx/Hispanic near South Side. Many neighborhoods in these sections are vulnerable to such problems as frequent flooding, lead contamination in drinking water, inequities in safety and maintenance of green space, and less access to Lake Michigan, the city's primary natural resource and recreational amenity.

The WaterMarks project advances informal STEM learning in at least two ways. First, while the WaterMarks project is designed to fit Milwaukee, the project includes the development of an Adaptable Model Guide. The Guide is designed so that other cities can modify and employ its inclusive structure, programming, and process of collaboration among artists, scientists, partner organizations, and residents to promote citywide civic engagement in urban sustainability through the combination of informal STEM learning and public art. The Guide will be developed by a Community-University Working Group (CULab) hosted by UW-Milwaukee's Center for Community-Based Learning, Leadership, and Research and made up of diverse community and campus-wide stakeholders. In addition to overseeing the Guide’s creation, CULab will conceptualize onboarding and mentorship strategies for new participants as well as a framework for the program’s expansion and sustainability.

Second, through evaluation and research, the project will build a theoretical model for the relationships among science learning, engagement with the arts, and the distinctive contexts of different neighborhoods within an urban social-ecological system. The evaluation team, COSI’s Center for Research and Evaluation, and led by Co-PI Donnelly Hayde, aims to conduct formative, summative, and process evaluation of the Watermarks project, with the additional goal of producing evaluative research findings that can contribute to the broader field of informal learning. Evaluation foci include: How does the implementation of WaterMarks support positive outcomes for the project’s communities and the development of an adaptable model for city-scale informal science learning about urban environments? 2. To what extent do the type and degree of outcome-related change experienced by participating community residents vary across and/or between project sites? What factors, if any, appear to be linked to these changes? 3. To what extent and in what ways do the activities of the WaterMarks projects appear to have in situ effects related to the experience of place at project sites?

The project’s research team led by PI Ryan Holifield and Co-PI Woonsup Choi, will investigate how visual artistic activities introduced by the programming team as part of the Walks (and potentially other engagement activities) interact with personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts to produce distinctive experiences and outcomes of informal science learning about urban water systems. The aim of the research will be to synthesize the results from the different WaterMarks sites into an analysis generalizable beyond specific neighborhoods and applicable to other cities. The project's research questions include: 1. How does participation in Walks focused on visual artistic activities affect outcomes and experiences of informal STEM learning about urban water systems? 2. How do outcomes and experiences of informal STEM learning vary across different urban water topics, participants from different demographic groups, and contrasting sociocultural and biophysical contexts?

This Innovations in Development project is led by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), in collaboration with City as Living Laboratory (CALL) and the COSI Center for Research and Evaluation.

Project Website(s)

(no project website provided)

Project Products

2021 Poster - WaterMarks: An art/science framework for community- engaged learning around water and water management in an urban area
WaterMarks Y1 Evaluation Report
WaterMarks Y1 Evaluation Summary Brief
WaterMarks Y2 Evaluation Report
WaterMarks Y2 Evaluation Summary Brief
2023 AISL Awardee Mini-Poster: 2115637

Team Members

Ryan Holifield, Principal Investigator, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Woonsup Choi, Co-Principal Investigator
Mary Miss, Co-Principal Investigator
Donnelley (Dolly) Hayde, Co-Principal Investigator


Funding Source: NSF
Funding Program: Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL)
Award Number: 2115637
Funding Amount: $1,529,522.00


Access and Inclusion: Black | African American Communities | Ethnic | Racial | Hispanic | Latinx Communities
Audience: Administration | Leadership | Policymakers | Adults | Educators | Teachers | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals | Scientists | Youth | Teen (up to 17)
Discipline: Art | music | theater | Climate | Ecology | forestry | agriculture | Geoscience and geography | Health and medicine | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Project Descriptions | Projects
Environment Type: Community Outreach Programs | Park | Outdoor | Garden Programs | Public Programs