Local students are learning how to be good Great Lakes stewards

Place-based education and environmental stewardship combine in a statewide initiative to help northwest Michigan's next generation become good stewards of the Great Lakes.
One of the most loved things about northern Michigan for those who live here is the abundance of natural resources, parks, outdoor sports, trails and wilderness--and of course, our Great Lakes.

They're important to the lifestyle of locals, and bring in the economic lifeblood of the region: tourism. But for all of that to happen, local residents need to be conscious and participating environmental stewards of the lands and waters they enjoy.

To that end, there's a serious and concerted effort underway to educate the next generation of good stewards for our planet. It's taking place in schools across Michigan, and it's called the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.

"The goal is to develop knowledgeable, active stewards of the Great Lakes and its ecosystems, which includes inland watersheds," says GLSI coordinator Mary Whitmore, who oversees the program across Michigan. It's funded by a $10.9 million, ten-year commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

It's made up of hubs across the state which coordinate environmental education projects with area schools and community partners; locally, that's the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative.
    
Students at Grand Traverse Academy, Greenspire School, TCAPS Montessori and The Children's House in Traverse City, Cherryland Middle School and Mill Creek Elementary School in Elk Rapids, Interlochen Academy in Interlochen and Benzie Central Middle School in Benzonia all are participating in various community-based stewardship projects this year.

Whitmore says the initiative approaches Great Lakes education with three strategies: place-based education, connecting students to the places they live; sustained professional development for teachers, so they can be effective environmental educators; and maybe most importantly, school-community partnerships. Each project has at least one community partner, like a land conservancy, local business or parks department.

"We want the community and the school to work together to benefit the students--in turn, the students can offer real benefits to the community," she says. "We know the stewardship initiative is working when we see a class of students going out into the community and working with one or more community partner."

There are projects designed by teachers in cooperation with the Grand Traverse hub at every age level, from elementary to high school. For example, two local classrooms at the middle and high school levels are working with Trout Unlimited and its Salmon in the Classroom program, but will be expanding on the usual salmon release project to include studies on water quality, stream macroinvertebrate populations, and they'll undertake pre- and post-release monitoring of stream quality.

The teachers prepared for their Great Lakes projects this year with a summer workshop led by hub coordinator Kristen Grote. They paddled down the Boardman River and looked at water quality, collected samples of macroinvertebrates in streams, and learned how to integrate environmental education into subjects like art, writing, and science with the help of community partners like Inland Seas and Blackbird Arts.

"One of the goals of the program is to foster partnerships," says Grote. Sometimes teachers come up with project ideas themselves, or she can suggest projects or connect them to resources. The hub also offers small grants to teachers in two-year cycles to help fund the projects.

"I bring in community partners who might broaden their ideas, and for teachers new to the program or who don't know what they want to do, I can help with that," she says.

That's part of the hub's role, to connect teachers and students to local resources in ways that can benefit both.

Like the sixth to eighth grade students who are taking on the issue of stream erosion by studying a local creek, a tributary into the Boardman River--they're working with local conservation groups and the hub to identify eroded sites. Then, the students will move on to erosion control and design possible solutions. It's hardly your typical science project, linking environmental science, engineering, biology, math and creative problem-solving.

At the elementary school level, a group of six teachers working together are using a native plant garden and rain garden to teach their students about plants and insects, and they also are working on a monarch butterfly project; raising the butterflies, learning about their migration and habitat, and releasing them.

There's something in the program for each grade level, making it as much a community-building project as an educational tool. Teachers choose an approach that works best for their classroom and areas of interest.

"One group is doing water chemistry, another is color coding plants and learning the alphabet with native plant names. It's a pretty wide range--that's one of the neat aspects of the stewardship program," says Grote.

At Cherryland Middle School, Sarah Pierson, international baccalaureate coordinator for the school district, works as part of a team to help classroom teachers get involved in place-based education, which fits perfectly with the GLSI mission.

"Being place-based is something we feel so passionately about," she says. "It gets the kids out and doing, and seeing the impact of the actions they're taking."

Students there have been involved in several projects over the last four years, including invasive species removal and community initiatives at Dam Beach, and extensive work at the school's Maple Bay location, like tree identification and observational writing assignments.

"We've done a whole variety, mostly with science and art," Pierson says. "The focus always is still the stewardship of the watersheds--but they generally change based on the class and the individual."

For instance, Grote says, a group of students at Grand Traverse Academy have been working to improve their local environment as they study the impact of plastics on the Great Lakes. They've designed public service announcements, studied water samples, and taken a trip on the Inland Seas ship, a floating classroom based in Suttons Bay.

Teacher Kim Ranger at Mill Creek Elementary in Elk Rapids has been prolific with Great Lakes projects, running school gardens, creating art notecards with local artists, and connecting to local retirees to learn the history of the area. In fact, she and Pierson will present some of their work at a fall conference on place-based education in Grand Rapids.

The goal for this year is to turn the Maple Bay location into an outdoor classroom, through revitalization projects, invasive species removal, pond rehabilitation and other needs.

"We're hoping that they'll get an understanding that this is not just a classroom effect," says Pierson. "Getting out into the community, they see that adults are working on these things, too."

Whitmore says the best way to help kids become stewards of their environment is to show them they can contribute on a personal level in their community.

"A lot of the kids say something like, 'I understand now that I can make a difference in my community.' Or 'I can show my family the trees I planted'," she says. "I think we know, without getting into the gloom and doom, all people understand that we are going to have to solve environmental problems and deal with these situations in the future if we're going to prosper as a society. So the more we can prepare people, the brighter the future will be."

Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in Marquette, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @magdalen13.
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