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Across subjects, students focus on theme of water

Kentwood — Ahmad Tucker stood beside an artistic model of the land around his school, dotted with tiny buildings, plants and homes, and explained how it indicated the flow of water into Buck Creek.

“This is supposed to be a representation of the Buck Creek watershed – it basically represents how things in the environment affect the runoff into the creek,” Ahmad said.

The mini-replica of the area surrounding Valleywood Middle School shows industry, agriculture, construction, residential and commercial areas. All have an impact on water, he said.

The colorful model, which consists of an art piece for the base and 3D printed objects for demonstration of the water runoff and pollution, is one of a year’s worth of projects all tied to the question: “Why do we care about the water?” 

The Valleywood Great Lakes Watershed Stewards project, led by social studies teacher Bobbijo Zoerhof and English teacher Jane VanHof, has flowed from classroom to classroom and across the curriculum.

In working with Groundswell, a program through Grand Valley State University  that involves partnerships with K-12 schools, the seventh-graders have explored creeks, tinkered with technology and even crafted spoken-word poetry. They plan to eventually create an outdoor classroom.

Focusing on ‘Place’

Zoerhof and VanHof have created the collaboration based on “place-based learning,” meaning their projects are focused on a place – the watershed around the students’ school and home. It’s a more narrowly focused type of project-based learning because students identify with the location.

“What we hope they learn from this is to really take ownership of our community and our school and our school grounds, and how environmental factors… affect watersheds, and how this watershed connects to the Great Lakes,” VanHof said. 

Projects have included:

  • researching and growing native plants on the school yard
  • testing water quality in Buck Creek
  • raising salmon in a tank through Salmon in the Classroom and releasing them at Fish Ladder Park in Grand Rapids.
  • learning about fly fishing
  • planning a nature-themed mural, to be painted this summer at Valleywood
  • Working with spoken word poets, the Diatribe, on the group’s “We are Water” workshop
  • using an underwater robot built last year in the creek
Valleywood Middle School English teachers Jane VanHof and Bobbijo Zoerhof have led students through a year of studying water and the watershed

Students presented their learning to the Kentwood Board of Education in May.

The teachers have also been savvy about tapping into resources to pull off the months’ worth or projects. They were awarded $9,000 worth of grants including $1,500 from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council for the mural and a MiSTEM grant from GVSU to purchase 3D printers.

Seventh-grader Jace Lesnau said he’s learned about the enormous amount of trash that ends up in lakes and the river. “We need to stop that and stop polluting,” he said.

All the projects – from getting out on the creek to test water to planting native plants – are about improving the area. “It helps us with problem-solving; we are getting to know each other and trying to help each other solve these problems,” said seventh-grader Vanessa Ajungo.

Mapping the Watershed

The class designed the enviroscape in separate groups, piecing together the city, residential, forest and farmland features present in the watershed by using Tinkercad. They printed the barn, stores, houses, deer, roads and other features using the 3D printers and assembled the enviroscape atop a paper mache foundation.

Seventh-grader Melissa Miles designed a parking lot for a store, demonstrating water runoff. She said the project will help people learn how Buck Creek connects with the Grand River and Great Lakes and the importance of keeping it clean.

“I want them to be more cautious of what they do, and put, into the water,” she said.

“It’s important, and you can mess up the ecosystem if you don’t,” added Devon Usher.

“It helps people visualize what homes around us look like, and it helps us know we can change the way we are treating the water,” said Jace Lesnau.

Seventh-graders present their water project to the Kentwood Board of Education (courtesy)
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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