Students build underwater robots to keep an eye on the Great Lakes

Students across the Copper Country are learning new ways to protect the Great Lakes and its watersheds through the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative.
Building an underwater robotic vehicle to hunt for invasive species sounds like a college-level project, if not a professional ambition. But at Dollar Bay High School in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it's being done by high school students.

The Student Organization of Aquatic Robotics is made up of students in grades 9 to 12, and is supported by the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative in Hancock, which aims to coordinate hands-on environmental education about the Great Lakes and watersheds in local schools.

SOAR is run through an elective science course at the high school taught by Matt Zimmer. Students in the course take on a variety of different roles, from machining to accounting, and work together to design, develop and build marine remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

"Students can gain a vast amount of knowledge and experience that gives them trade skills such as machining and mechanical drawing skills, leadership skills, communication skills, team skills, and plenty of physics and math knowledge," says Xena Cortez, a recent graduate of Dollar Bay who now is studying environmental engineering. "I truly cannot begin to list all the experience and knowledge students gain from this class."

Cortez began getting involved in SOAR as a sophomore, and became director of its board in her junior year. One of the key aspects of projects supported by the LSSI is that they bring together students, schools and community partners--in this case, the U.S. Park Service, who worked with SOAR to protect the lakes at Isle Royale National Park.

"Our team built ROVs to Isle Royale's specifications so that rangers could be trained to use them to look under docks and ships for an invasive species of zebra mussels attacking the Great Lakes," says Cortez.

Pretty astonishing accomplishment from a group of high school students, but it's far from over.

"What really spoke to me was that we were solving real world problems by building these ROVs. SOAR now has multiple community projects with the help of LSSI and other groups to establish a name in the community," says Cortez. "It is amazing to me that as high school students we could do something like this."

The marine robotics program takes place all year and continues to reach out to the community, but many other projects from LSSI have shorter lifespans. What all of them have in common is a commitment to the local environment and place-based education to help students learn about the places they live.

"The goal is to develop knowledgeable, active stewards of the Great Lakes and its ecosystems, which includes inland watersheds," says Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative coordinator Mary Whitmore, who oversees a statewide program across Michigan. The Lake Superior hub is one part of that larger program. The GLSI is funded by a $10.9 million, ten-year commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

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 involves 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 regional partners."

The Lake Superior hub works with 15 schools in ten school districts, mostly in Baraga and Houghton counties. Coordinator Shawn Oppliger leads the program as part of a leadership team that includes Lloyd Wescoat and Joan Chadde. They help keep the initiative moving forward and provide mentorship to teachers and community partners who get involved. One big partner for LSSI is Michigan Technological University.

"Our major goal is to get students involved in stewardship work that is meaningful to them, to their community, and to Lake Superior and its watershed," says Oppliger.

The students involved in stewardship projects range from elementary to high school, and each project is individually designed by teachers and LSSI coordinators to fit their classroom and curriculum. LSSI provides small grants of a few hundred dollars, up to $1,000 or so, to help get the projects off the ground.

The programs have included studying native plants, cleaning up local wetlands and beaches, building interpretive signage, and invasive plant removal efforts.

"One of the things that I think is neat about LSSI is we have several teams that have gone through several funding cycles. It speaks to the creativity of some of the teachers--it's not a canned program, they're not submitting the same thing every year; they're evolving," says Wescoat.

Another program that has had an impact on its local community is located at Jeffers High School, where students have become stewards of a nearby lake area that is one of the few fens in the U.P., as well as a habitat for salmon trout. Partnering with Trout Unlimited, the students cleaned up the area, created nature trails and built signs.

"Before they started working in the area, it was a popular 'party spot'. Lots of broken glass, trash. So they went in and cleaned it up," says Oppliger. "It's become a real asset to the community, where before, it wasn't."

The success of the programs is in their approach to education, which puts much of the control in the hands of the students, says Wescoat.

"It's not a top-down process," she says. "Students make better decisions in the long run because they feel empowered."

Whitmore, similarly, 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. "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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