The Upper Great Lakes Stewardship Institute is the newest among several regional hubs across Michigan with the goal to educate students on good environmental stewardship for the Great Lakes and their watersheds.
Last spring, a group of fourth-grade students in Marquette embarked on a Great Lakes learning journey with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and local cruise company Marquette Harbor Cruises.
The students boarded the company's boat Isle Royale Queen to study the Lake Superior environment both from shore and on the lake. With the timing of the trip coming before the lake was free of ice last spring, there were lots of opportunities for learning about the seasonal cycles, says coordinator Jenn Hill, who oversees the Upper Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative
from her office at Superior Watershed Partnership.
The UGLSI is the newest of nine hubs across Michigan, and is just getting going on educational projects in schools in Marquette, Alger, Delta and Schoolcraft counties.
Hill's role is to connect teachers with Great Lakes education projects to community partners who can help with the projects, as well as support those ideas with small grants from the GLSI.
"It's an example of helping kids learn about their local environment," she says. "We're all about place-based education and connecting with the folks that have that local knowledge."
Fourth-grade Northstar Academy teacher Amy Andrews was part of the Lake Superior boat trip last spring and says the experience got her students excited about the environment around them. Some things they studied include water quality and how to protect and interact with endangered species, she says.
Andrews says she focuses on the environment and sciences frequently in the classroom, and working with the UGLSI has meant being able to put the things her students have learned in the classroom into practice in real life, a valuable lesson for them.
"It is crucial that our youth learn and understand the importance of our environment," says Andrews. "They will be the ones to secure the well-being of our environment in the future. Exposing them at this age increases their awareness and sensitivity for their environment."
Other upcoming projects in the works for this school year include trail rehabilitation and creating monarch butterfly habitat.
The initiative is a local hub of a much bigger whole, 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 was founded in 2007 and is backed by a $10.9 million, 10-year commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.
A project might take the form of a brand new idea from a teacher, or it might be through a familiar program, like the Summer Youth Conservation Corps, with improved hands-on learning and better funding so that more can be accomplished.
"One of the exciting things is that it allows some projects that people have been working on for years to really take off," she says.
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. Northern Michigan University is a major partner.
"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 a partner."
Whitmore also says the best way to help kids become stewards of their environment is to show them that 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. "The world needs stewards, and it needs good problem solvers, and people who can come up with solutions and work collaboratively. And that’s what we're giving these kids practice at doing."
Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in Marquette, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter @magdalen13.