Teaching kids to shape a healthy future for Lansing's rivers

You may wonder why someone living in the Lansing area, which is pretty much right in the middle of the mitten, needs to be a steward of the Great Lakes. After all, we are about as far from the lakes as it's possible to be, while still living in Michigan. So what impact could we possibly have on those distant waters, and what exactly can we do about it? As it turns out - the answer to both of those questions is: a lot!

We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one. - Jacques Cousteau

And that's where the GRAND Learning Network comes in. Working hand-in-hand with schools in the Lansing area, this innovative stewardship initiative is using hands-on learning to teach kids about subjects that are already part of their school curriculum, but through the medium of their natural environment.

"Our focus is on creating partnerships between schools and their local communities," explains Shari Dann, program coordinator at the GRAND Learning Network. "We want to foster a sense of community pride, as well as teach kids about their natural environment."

For example, the kids address an issue in their community, like planting rain gardens to reduce erosion in local parks, or building nesting boxes for ducks in local wetlands who would otherwise have difficulty finding suitable natural nesting sites.

In this way, children are afforded unique opportunities to help shape the future of their communities. And when kids are empowered to invest in their local environment and participate in the well-being of their communities, they develop a true sense of stewardship.

Water is life's matter and matrix, mother and medium. - Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

But how exactly did this all come about, you may wonder...

In 2007, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust chose to make a long-term commitment to stewardship education in Michigan, and founded the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI). Mary Whitmore, the coordinator at the GLSI, says that while the Great Lakes Fishery Trust  has always done very important work in areas like habitat restoration and outreach education, the decision to fund an initiative like this was both incredibly generous and very forward-thinking.

The GLSI currently features nine regional hubs around the state, each one serving multiple schools and their surrounding communities. "Each hub has a lot of latitude to develop their own structure for the schools and the community they serve, " Whitmore explains, "But they all have to develop ways to implement our core strategies, which are: place-based education, the professional development and support of teachers, and creating partnerships between schools and their communities."

To live by a large river, is to be kept in the heart of things. - John Haines

Lansing falls squarely into the middle of the Grand River Watershed, which is the second largest in the state. "We are where it all begins," says Dann, "We need to take care of our waters here at the center, because what happens here affects the waters throughout the state. We actually play a very important role in the health of the Great Lakes."  

The Grand River watershed region is home to abundant rivers, wetlands and marshes that are rife with delicate ecosystems and fascinating wildlife, making it a wonderful place to learn.

"Children are part of a community, and community is the foundation of education," Whitmore explains, "Because the community is familiar, the issues and assets of that community are relevant to the children who live in it. By pursuing stewardship duties in their communities, they are learning in a way that adds real value to time spent in the class room."

Wetlands are among the earth's greatest natural assets - mankind's waterlogged wealth.  - Edward Maltby

In addition to working with the team at the GRAND Learning Network, Dann is an Associate Professor and Extension Specialist at MSU's Department of Community Sustainability. She is passionate about the outdoors, and about Michigan's natural resources, and it's evident when she talks about the coming year's programs.

"We have some amazing things going on this year!" she smiles, "The kids at Gier Park Elementary planted almost two hundred native plantings at their school recently. But they're also planning to reach out into the community, doing projects like upgrading the community center with native plantings."

"The kids at Murphy Elementary are going to be involved in the production of a butterfly garden in Meridian Township, and kids from Atwood Elementary are working with Hawk Island on the possibility of installing a rain garden along the side of the playground where they've noticed some soil erosion."

"They really enjoy it, and they learn so much from these experiences," Dan says. And it makes perfect sense. What child wouldn't love to spend class time digging, planting, building, and collecting instead of just sitting. "Which is why place based education is such an effective method of learning," Dann says.

A river is the report card for its watershed. - Alan Levere

Another foundational principle of the GLSI is the professional development of teachers. And the GRAND Learning Network takes this to heart in a very real way.

"We do summer and fall institutes for the teachers where we launch next years projects, and equip them with leadership skills and information," Dann explains.  "Every year we try to do something different, something engaging. This summer we floated a group of teachers down the Red Cedar River on a raft, and had a local historian explain the settlement of Lansing, from original wetland to established city. We wanted to show them a new perspective."

"We also try to provide teachers with lots of opportunities throughout the year to talk to each other, share experiences and provide moral and inspirational support. It gives them a chance to share strategies, address barriers and brain-storm solutions to challenges they may be facing in the class room."

There is no life without water. - Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

By building vibrant, sustainable communities that are committed to equipping their children to be the environmental leaders of tomorrow, the GRAND Learning Network is helping to ensure the protection of Michigan's future.

"We face some very serious environmental issues in the years ahead," says Whitmore, "But these kids have so much potential, they're a real asset to our future. If they're inspired and empowered by these experiences, and by the respect of their communities, we can ensure that our state's resources are well stewarded."

So look around, Lansing, and take note. The stewards of the future are rising up among you, learning to rebuild and diversify one of our most precious natural resources - our waters.


Sarah Hillman is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains Media.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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