Utah high school students debate solutions for their futures before water runs out

This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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It’s easy to mistake high school policy debaters for auctioneers in training.

Teams of two partners speak so quickly that the untrained ear is often incomprehensible. Debaters practice speed training to practice speaking or “spreading” as quickly and clearly as possible. The goal is to cram as many arguments into the speech as possible before the timer goes off.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) On Friday, March 18, 2022, set a four-minute timer for policy speeches and debates during the rebuttal speech.

But behind the rapid Spitfire is a wealth of real-world knowledge.

“The speed of it forces you to think very quickly,” said West High School policy debater and senior Sterling Peterson, “and being able to synthesize all this information and make sense of it in a short amount of time is really fun.”

Over the past year, Peterson, along with other high school policy debaters across the country, has devoted their energies to a topic of unique importance to Utah as we experience an ongoing drought.

Resolved: The U.S. federal government should significantly increase protection of U.S. water resources.

Mike Shackelford, head coach of Roland Hall, one of Utah’s most successful speech and debate programs, will be the first to say that debate isn’t easy. He has been involved in the activity for a total of 26 years, both as an athlete and a coach.

“The debate season is long and requires a lot of work and sacrifice,” he said, “whether it’s sacrificing other extracurricular activities or family time. You have to dig deep in your pursuit of personal growth and personal excellence.”

Unlike most high school sports, debate season is year-round. Games take up the entire weekend and are often behind schedule. Debate research can be dense and complex. Children often lose debate rounds that they spend hundreds of hours preparing for.

Among the 25 nationally recognized events in high school speech and debate, policies have a reputation for being the most demanding—and not just because they speak a mile a minute.

Shackelford, a former high school and college policy debater, considers the event “the most intellectually challenging intellectual activity for high school students” because both require extensive research, critical thinking skills, rapid regression and debate Competitive affirmations and negatives in the game.

Students participating in the policy competition commit to a year of research on a topic. They are forced to dig deep into a complex problem, develop innovative arguments for and against the chosen topic, and propose various solutions.

“We’re looking for answers to tough questions that most adults don’t even think about,” Shackleford said.

Determining the extent of water resources

The Rowland Hall debate team gathers in a small room connected to Shackleford’s office. National Speech and Debating Association student certificates cover one wall. It’s hard to miss the big trophy sitting on the filing cabinet, which proudly honors Roland Hall as the 2020-2021 1A-3A state debate champion. After the team’s successful title defense earlier this month, another team will soon be on the horizon.

When asked about their initial reaction to learning that they would spend an entire year researching and debating water, a handful of policy debaters gathered around a table in the panel room and let out a collective groan. However, as students became invested in the subject, their attitudes began to change.

“Living in a state that suffers from drought or pollution,” said Roland Hall policy debater Layla Hijjawi, “I think it forces us to be more nuanced in our approach to this topic, and it forces us to recognize how it plays out in our own Life.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Layla Hijjawi performs speed training with her teeth and a pencil during debate practice at Roland Hall School in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 10, 2022.

Through an in-depth study of water policy and practice, students essentially become mini-experts on the subject. Students in the policy debate are discussing the same issues Utah lawmakers have grappled with for decades.

As Hijjawi gathered a large body of research, she noticed Utah’s role in the evidence related to water consumption.

“Half of those examples are about droughts in the Great Salt Lake and Utah, and how we’re going to be supplying a growing population with totally unsustainable amounts of water in 50 years,” Hijjawi noted. “Much of Utah is desert. Why are we growing incredibly water-hungry crops?”

Additionally, the freedom of policy debate gives students the opportunity to explore ideas outside of traditional policymaking. One of the purposes of debate is to challenge mainstream thinking by identifying unique angles of argument.

For Rowland Hall policy debater Erin Robles, the topic opened her eyes to how water policy often keeps Indigenous communities out of the conversation. Before the topic, Robles said the Aboriginal connection to water was something she “didn’t even think of”.

“Just understanding how we interact with Indigenous peoples and how important water rights are to them,” she said. “I feel like I’m a little short-sighted on this.”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) West High School Speech and Debate team member Cleo Shaw practices policy activity in class on Friday, March 18, 2022.

For West High School junior Cleo Shaw, the most interesting aspect of the policy debate is the sheer amount of research available.

“It’s not that research doesn’t exist and we can’t solve the problem,” she said, “it’s that we refuse to do it.”

Water Solutions from the Next Generation

Salem Hill High School policy debate partners Sahaya Rutledge and Tate Jackson prepare to put a year’s worth of work to the test at this month’s Utah 5A State Debating Championships in Tooele County.

Instead of putting all the pressure on the federal government to solve the water crisis, they’re playing with spreading the blame.

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake City Tribune) Salem Hill High School debate team member Tate Roberts at Stansbury High School in Stansbury Park on Friday, March 11, 2022 5A State Championships.

Utah is no stranger to toxic algal blooms, and Jackson found evidence that suggests consulting NASA as part of the answer, “because NASA has access to a wealth of information about data, oceans and climate change.”

Specifically, “NASA is tracking algal blooms so they don’t form dead spots that just kill fish,” Jackson said, noting that NASA’s use of Utah Lakes as toxic algal blooms is negative for biodiversity and the economy An example of influence.

One argument Rutledge made is for the federal government to create more federally or state-protected marine areas to protect ecosystems such as fish stocks threatened by climate change and overexploitation of resources.

(Trent Nelson | Salt Lake Tribune) Sahaja Rutledge, member of the Salem Hill High School debate team, at the 5A State Championship on Friday, March 11, 2022, at Stansbury High School in Stansbury Park.

But the debate told her it wasn’t that simple.

“Private companies want access to these waters, or farmers want water for agriculture,” Rutledge noted. “But at some point, there’s always going to be a time [protection of water resources] Either it will happen, or it will never happen, and the species will die. “

In the halls of West High School, policy debater Ishan Sharma argued that cloud seeding, a human action that alters weather patterns to create more rain and snow, is a possible solution to reducing the footprint of climate change.

Cloud seeding promotes “the idea that we shouldn’t be focusing on addressing climate change, but rather mitigating its effects while others find solutions,” Sharma said, highlighting successful Idaho research on the approach .

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ishan Sharma practices a policy debate event with his teammates at Western High on Friday, March 18, 2022.

But most importantly, even if he and his debating partner lost, Sharma felt the debate was rewarding.

“It was really fun to meet people from other schools,” he said, “and have intellectual conversations with them for over two hours.”

‘You can’t stand up and say you don’t need to save water’

A poster hangs in the hallway of Stansbury High School showing American icons involved in speech and debate, such as Oprah Winfrey, actor Paul Rudd, and even high school musical star Zac Efron.

The slogan read in bold letters: “Join the speeches and debates. They did it!”

(Saige Miller|The Salt Lake Tribune) Stansbury High School hangs a sign encouraging students to participate in speeches and debates.

Although it is a labor-intensive and time-consuming activity, Rowland Hall debate coach Mike Shackelford said the debates were sustained by “self-sacrificing inspirational people” and those who “shared respect for intellectual curiosity” of.

“We competed in debate, but never felt like we were rivals,” Shackelford stressed. “It felt like we were just going to the same academic gathering.”

While the academic gathering is drawing to a close for the season, policy debaters are leaving the podium with more wisdom on the most pressing issues facing Utah’s future generations.

“You can’t stand up and say you don’t need to conserve water — because it is. We can judge, especially when you can’t disprove the evidence and the statistics,” said Sahaja Rutledge, a policy debater in Salem Hill. “Debate taught me to say something meaningful.”

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