Immersion in Watershed Helps Teachers Create Student Projects

Susan Gray peers into a microscope that reveals the miniscule habitat of algae and phytoplankton culled from the depths of Muskegon Lake.

Gray, a 5th and 6th grade science, math and Language Arts teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools’ Northern Trails 5/6 School, said her exploration of minute organisms is helping her to formulate big plans for her students. “Our children live in a unique ecosystem,” Gray said. “I want them to grow up knowing its value and being committed to take good care of it.”

On this particular overcast day, Gray and a handful of other teachers aboard the W.G. Jackson, the research vessel owned by Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Research Institute, examined water drawn from the calm waters of Muskegon Lake. As the boat went further out, they compared it to the water quality with the choppier Lake Michigan.Terrie Morrow writes in her notepad while at Ken-O-Sha Park

Thirty educators participated in a five-day professional development endeavor to enhance their understanding of water quality education, with an eye to conveying what they’ve learned to their students.

Later in the week, teachers hopped on a bus tour to plant about 2,000 indigenous flowers at Kreiser Park and learned the reasons for bacterial contamination along the 58-square-mile Plaster Creek watershed.

This part seminar, part field trip experience is a component of the Groundswell initiative, made up of multiple partners, including Kent ISD. Grand Valley State University’s College of Education is the Groundswell fiscal agent and a contributor of in-kind donations, as are many other partners.

The Great Lakes Fishery Trust supports the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative program, which in turn, has nine regional hubs in Michigan. Groundswell is one of the nine.

Mary Nell Baldwin, a PD consultant for Kent ISD, said educational programs like Groundswell are important to student learning. “It’s about teaching kids to love science, to have a responsibility for the community, and coming up with solutions,” said Baldwin.

Achieving those goals are accomplished more effectively when kids get dirt under their fingernails, or test for themselves the water quality of a nearby river, said Baldwin.


Currently, 15 schools participate in Groundswell but that may increase to 19 or 20 in the 2014-15 school year, Baldwin said. The program helps shepherd teachers who may be reticent to taking their students on field trips, or simply wish to learn how to get the most out of a field trip, Baldwin said.

“It’s teaching them methods of working with students outside so they don’t feel the kids are going to be out of control,” said Baldwin. “That is really key to getting teachers to taking kids outdoors and to do to one of these. Raising teachers’ confidence is really critical.” 

Groundswell is not solely for science teachers, but has an interdisciplinary focus that encourages educators outside of science classrooms to learn about watershed education.

“Some of the short stories, novels and research papers they’ll write will be about Great Lakes water principles,” said Kristin Bakker, 7th-8th grade English teacher at Grand Rapids Public’s C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. “(Groundswell) is very much entwined with what we do.”

“We’re going to teach water usage, modern and ancient, like the Roman Empire’s aqueducts,” said Chris Burgess, 7th-8th grade social studies teacher also at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. “You’ve got to have water to live… how water affects things.”

“Field trips gives them a foundation you can teach from,” said Sue Blackall, a 3rd grade teacher from Sparta Area Schools’ Appleview Elementary.

Chris Burgess conducts a water-quality testTerrie Morrow, 3rd grade teacher at Caledonia Community Schools’ Dutton Elementary scribbled ideas for her students in a notepad while sitting along the shore of Plaster Creek in Ken-O-Sha Park. Stuck in the creek near the shoreline is a measuring stick that gauges the water levels. The gauge allows people with smart phones to text their data to the University of Buffalo. Such information helps track the extent of soil erosion over time.

Participating in Groundswell sparked Morrow’s educational muse, she said. “I’ve always been interested in non-traditional types of learning,” said Morrow, explaining she avoids perfectly-aligned desks in her classroom for tables where students are allowed to siton top of them, or on milk crates that come complete with wheels at the bottom for easy navigation around the classroom.

“I want it to be student led and ask them ‘What is a watershed?’,” said Morrow. “I want them to make their own watershed model, and I want to bring in the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), and Calvin College as guest speakers. I’m most excited in how to start something similar to the Kent Innovation High at Kent ISD.”

Major community partners with expertise in environmental stewardship or civic engagement that work directly with schools include River City Wild Ones, Calvin College Plaster Creek Stewards, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Teach for the Watershed, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Ada Township Parks, Trout Unlimited, and WGVU.

“Some partners support the hub financially, including The Baldwin Foundation, The Wege Foundation, Celebration Cinema, and Schupan Recycling,” said Colleen Bourque, Groundswell project coordinator at Grand Valley State University. “Others share similar goals and partner to strengthen area watershed or education efforts, such as Lower Grand River Association of Watershed, Kent ISD, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, City of Grand Rapids MyGRCity Points, and Kent Conservation District.”

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