A new course at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., is offering students an opportunity to immerse themselves in Lake Ontario, both figuratively and literally. 

"A lot of Queen's students come to Kingston, spend four years here, and they really don't know anything about the lake," said David McDonald, a professor in the university's department of global development studies.

He created the course in part to raise awareness among students about the long history of community effort that has contributed to creating the public space along the city's waterfront.

"We want the students using the space, and also want them to understand the history of the space. And not just it's recent history, but it's long history," he said. 

That includes the lake's long history of First Nations occupation and use.

The course will bring in guest speakers to help students explore the ways colonization, climate change, industry and economic development have shaped the lake over hundreds of years into what it is today.

"I never see water as a thing. I see water as a process," McDonald said.

"Water experts talk about the hydrological cycle, and I do work on the hydro-social cycle. So how does water circulate not just as a physical entity, but how does it circulate through the social, political and economic elements of our lives."

Dip in the lake optional

The course is running for the first time this fall.

Twenty students are enrolled, some because of their interest in the climate, some because of the amount of time spent outside the classroom and some because they are avid swimmers, McDonald said.

He designed the course to be largely experiential, including field trips to the city's wastewater and sewage treatment plants, a meal of fish caught in Lake Ontario, a walk along the city's waterfront and an optional dip in the lake on the first day of class. 

"It's sexy to talk about water, but it's not very sexy to talk about poo. That's one of the reasons we're going to the sewage treatment plant and talking about sewage," he said.

For McDonald, paying attention to the processes that make water accessible and enjoyable is critical to appreciating the massive body of freshwater at Kingston's doorstep.

As part of the global development studies program, it also emphasizes the connection between local water issues and global freshwater challenges, such as safe sanitation, climate change and food security.

"There are so many essential things to our lives related to water that I thought what a great opportunity with this massive body of water in front of us to do this," McDonald said.

Click to listen to the Ontario Morning radio segment

With files from CBC Radio's Ontario Morning

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