ASU students use the power of storytelling to drive awareness of water scarcity

As the U.S. Southwest grapples with historically low water levels, the looming threat of a parched future in Arizona continues to cast a long shadow. 

On March 25, over a dozen ASU students came together to find new ways to use interactive storytelling to increase public awareness around Arizona’s water crisis, stemming from ongoing drought conditions in the Southwest. The event, called Idea Jam 2023, was co-hosted by Enterprise Technology’s Learning Futures and Impact Water - Arizona in Tempe.

From undergraduates to doctoral students, groups combined their expertise and creative thinking to explore ways to address the state’s water shortages and find solutions that could have far-reaching impacts on the state’s agricultural, industrial and residential communities. 

Student ideas ranged from interactive movies with alternative endings to immersive virtual reality video games, apps that tell consumers how much water their food uses to be produced and more.

“As I worked with my team members, our ideas started to really gain momentum and turn into something tangible,” said Sanjana Mukherjee, a graduate student studying computer science at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Impact Water - Arizona, which is housed in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, joined forces with Learning Futures and Decision Theater to sponsor the event in an effort to reach new audiences and address the state’s dwindling water resources through student innovation. The collaboration also aims to provide student internship opportunities and real-world experience.

“We know that when people play games and get involved in immersive experiences, they are much more emotionally connected,” said Dan Munnerley, executive director for Learning Futures. “They have much more empathy with a problem because they've invested in the story — role-playing a character in the game.

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Two teams tied for first place at the event. The project ideas included an interactive movie with alternative endings driven by the viewer’s decisions and a dystopian survival game set in 2150 with limited water reserves. Mukherjee was a part of the team that designed the interactive movie concept.

Looking ahead, Decision Theater will offer one student a paid internship to develop their idea into a product during the fall semester. Learning Futures will support students in the winning teams during the summer semester and again in the fall semester, with the exception of one student who will be with Decision Theater. This will include paid hours, mentorship opportunities and other resources from Learning Futures and Decision Theater.

This iterative process not only enhances their problem-solving abilities but also instills a sense of confidence and resilience, laying the foundation for a future generation of technology pioneers ready to tackle the world's most pressing challenges with creativity and collaboration.  

“We really wanted to leave a lot of space open for creative thinking,” said Olivia Hernández, who organized the event and is the creative manager at Learning Futures. “So their imaginations, in particular, are unencumbered with doubt or how technically feasible something may be right now.”

“The Colorado River shortage is a massive crisis that we need to come up with ways to address,” said Chelsea Dickson, assistant director at Decision Theater. “It’s inspiring to hear new ideas of how to engage people in that topic, from a perspective and a generation that hasn’t historically been a part of that conversation.”

At Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the drought conditions that have plagued the reservoirs — which provide water to over 40 million Americans across seven states and Mexico — are at record low levels despite rainy and snowy winter conditions. Last year, the federal government cut over 20% of Arizona’s Colorado River water allotment due to ongoing drought conditions. 

“I think the people who've really been focusing on Arizona’s water crisis could use new ideas and approaches,” said Sara Porter, director of ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy. “I’m excited about the possibility of bringing completely new approaches and philosophies to our water challenges.”

This cross-disciplinary collaboration is emblematic of a broader movement toward interdisciplinary problem-solving, one that recognizes the interconnectedness of environmental, social and economic issues surrounding Arizona’s water challenges.

As learners continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies, events such as these are a reminder of the power of collaborative exploration in addressing complex challenges.

“It’s truly inspiring to see how our mentors’ passion and excitement motivated a new generation to tackle complex problems in innovative ways, leveraging new technologies and creative storytelling to reach their peers and families,” Munnerley said. “Their eagerness and forward-thinking approach promises a brighter future and I'm thrilled ASU can be a part of the solution.”

Written by Kevin Pirehpour; photos by Mike Sanchez

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