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Freshwater Literacy and Stewardship
MiSTEM Network Playbook
Freshwater Literacy and Stewardship
Who is this chapter for?
Administration: Through their efforts related to budgeting, school policy, and instructional practices, administrators can provide critical support for the practice of place-based education.
Educators: Educators looking for opportunities for students to learn in and contribute to the community may be interested in freshwater topics.
Community: Nonprofits, municipalities, universities, businesses, and more may be interested in examples of how they can partner with schools to foster stewardship of fresh water and build awareness of its many uses.
- Appreciate the value of freshwater PBE
- Identify resources to help you with freshwater PBE
- Identify the steps of a freshwater PBE effort
- Recognize the supports needed to sustain a quality practice of freshwater PBE in a school
Why do Freshwater PBE?
As noted by From Students to Stewards, Michigan "is the Great Lakes State. Bordered by four Great Lakes, it has hundreds of miles of freshwater coast, more than 11,000 inland lakes, and thousands of miles of rivers and streams. Michiganders have a deep connection to water through our culture, economy, and way of life." Nevertheless, "Many Michigan residents lack basic knowledge about the Great Lakes, watersheds, and how water resources are directly affected by the decisions and actions of people."
These truths make freshwater PBE an exceptionally good fit for place-based education in Michigan. Most schools will have access to a lake, stream, or river within reasonable traveling distance. Organizations that work to protect fresh water, or who rely upon it for economic or cultural uses, are abundant, and can serve as community partners in freshwater PBE. And water is an essential topic of study for students of all ages, prominent in science and social studies curricula, and an ideal focus for applied writing, communication, calculation, and engineering tasks.
How does one carry out a freshwater PBE effort?
A complete freshwater PBE effort consists of some version of each of the following steps. They may or may not be carried out in the order listed; often research, partnerships, and development of an action project are occurring simultaneously.
Please note: the depth and duration of your freshwater PBE effort will depend on several factors and choices. Some efforts are limited and others are expansive, depending on the experience of the participating teachers and partners, the nature of school policies, and other considerations.
Partners for a freshwater stewardship effort can be found in many places:
- Watershed organizations: Most of the state's watersheds are served by a dedicated watershed council or coalition. Watershed councils typically employ scientists as well as education and outreach specialists. These organizations monitor water quality in the watershed, advocate for proper stewardship of water resources, organize volunteers for stewardship and outdoor recreational activities, and implement projects to improve water quality. Many of Michigan's watershed councils are availble online.
- Higher education: Many colleges and universities have freshwater expertise and programming.
- Michigan Sea Grant is a joint program of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, and Sea Grant educators and programs are available through the campus offices as well as through Sea Grant Extension educators employed off campus.
- Most Michigan colleges and universities have teaching staff with knowledge of freshwater ecology, environmental engineering, and more. Many also have outreach and education arms that serve their home communities.
- Municipalities, regions, and state, federal, and tribal organizations: Cities, townships, villages, counties, and regional planning entities play important roles in water quality protection through their regulatory and infrastructure responsibilities. Many also operate parks programs that may offer opportunities for freshwater stewardship, as do the State of Michigan, tribal governments, and the federal government.
- Water-related businesses: Freshwater recreation is an important component of Michigan's tourism industry and many small businesses will rent out kayaks or rafts, outfit your group for an outdoor adventure, or connect you to Michigan's freshwater resources and cultural heritage.
- Environmental and outdoor recreation nonprofits: Beyond watershed councils, the state's impressive network of environmental nonprofits holds great expertise in water issues and freshwater ecology. Your local nature center, zoo or aquarium, sports fishing association, or Audubon chapter may have employees with freshwater expertise or stewardship needs that your students can support.
The Office of the Great Lakes within the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Environment has developed a partner database that lists a variety of organizations offering direct support and/or resources related to freshwater stewardship education.
Step 1 and Step 2: Scan the community and select an issue
Typically, before you decide on a freshwater focus for your PBE effort, you will have conducted some sort of scan to identify needs that students could address through an action project in the community. The following are just a few of the freshwater issues that students can address through community action projects:
- Stormwater runoff occurs everywhere and flushes surface pollutants into waterways. Students can identify practices contributing to polluted runoff and conduct outreach and education campaigns or implement projects that reduce, absorb, or eliminate stormwater runoff.
- Water quality testing and related remediation is an option if you have safe access to a stream or river. In this type of effort, students test water quality and based on their findings, select a project to preserve or improve water quality.
- Beach and river cleanups are excellent entry-level projects. The Alliance for the Great Lakes aggregates trash findings through the Adopt-A-Beach program. Microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes is a newer threat of interest to many students.
Many teachers will narrow the options down to a few quality choices, then have students use tools for decision-making that help them establish evaluation criteria and choose among the options systematically. Sometimes, teachers identify a focus for place-based education on their own or with a community partner, letting their required curriculum drive the choice. However you go about selecting an issue, the balance of this chapter assumes that you've decided to focus on freshwater stewardship.
Step 3: Develop partnerships
Community partners play essential roles in place-based education. Sometimes, a partner is engaged from the start and helps teachers and students identify community stewardship needs, especially those that are well suited to student-led work. Sometimes, a partner is engaged after teachers and students have selected a focus for their work, and contributes specific local knowledge related to freshwater resources. Community partners often help students understand career paths related to natural resources and environmental sustainability, which can involve employment in private industry, government, education, or the nonprofit sectors. See our chapter on school-community partnerships for further insight into the process of developing healthy school-community partnerships, the various roles community partners can play, and more.
Step 4 and Step 5: Research your issue and complete an action project
Connect to curriculum. A well-designed freshwater PBE effort includes some components aimed at building academic understanding and some components aimed at tangibly serving or enhancing the community's freshwater resources. Such an effort will address multiple elements within a teacher's required curriculum. If teachers did not select a project based solely on curriculum standards, they should now identify a set of standards that can be addressed through the freshwater PBE effort.
Teachers of elementary students can often organize comprehensive, interdisciplinary explorations that include freshwater science; address the politics, geography, or historical aspects of local fresh water; and involve applications of math and of reading, writing, listening, and public speaking. Secondary teachers often face more difficulty in collaborating across disciplines, but students benefit from richer and more meaningful learning experiences when teachers work together to integrate cross-disciplinary content into a substantial effort with real-world relevance and complexity.
Articulate an essential or driving question. Once teachers have identified the standards they want to incorporate into the emerging freshwater PBE effort, they generally articulate a driving or essential question. As described by the Lake Champlain program, an essential question is "more 'real' than just topics." Essential questions "take hold when the learner grapples with real problems and perplexities of the places in which we live." These questions structure the project's core inquiry, and will ideally reflect topics that have sparked students' curiosity or inspired them to action.
Develop learning tasks to navigate the inquiry. Through various individual or group assignments, students may:
- explore written or online texts
- explore published data
- make direct observations in nature or in the community
- collect primary data (e.g., soil samples, water quality tests, or interviews with local residents)
- analyze findings using computational and critical thinking skills
- demonstrate learning through assessments such as presentations, reports or briefs, drawings, or creative arts (drama, poetry, music)
Community partners can help students (and their teachers) grapple with new material, collect scientific data, bring questions or findings to public officials, and understand the nuances of local freshwater stewardship.
Use your learning to define the best stewardship actions-and take them. Stewardship action projects provide further opportunities to develop skills and competencies prominent in Michigan's curriculum standards. For example, students can engineer solutions to stormwater runoff problems, using science and engineering practices including defining problems, developing and using models, and designing solutions. Students can take informed civic action by approaching elected or appointed officials or convening a community meeting to discuss an issue. And, through their work as members of a team and in partnership with teachers and community, students can develop their speaking and listening skills, organizational and leadership attributes, and other capacities associated with readiness for college and careers.
Step 6: Share results and celebrate
Sharing results and celebrating accomplishments is not only about fun (although it can be fun). Research on the benefits of place-based education emphasizes the importance of student accountability to authentic audiences and recognition for student contributions. When students feel accountable to members of the community who have expressed a need for their help on a specific community issue, they are motivated to persist and engage deeply with the issue. When students are recognized for their contributions to the community, they begin to see themselves as competent contributors and stewards who can make a difference. Both outcomes are core benefits of place-based freshwater education.
Sharing results can be done in many different and creative ways. Whenever possible, students should present their work to live audiences so they can be recognized and appreciated. Consider a presentation to the community-partner organization(s) or to the municipal governing board, or at the project site where relevant. Some PBE practitioners host conference-style events at which multiple student groups can present their work to a diverse audience.
When freshwater PBE is part of the culture and rhythm of a school
Developing the commitment and culture for freshwater PBE in a school or district
There are many schools with one or two teachers leading freshwater place-based education efforts. These teachers are often inclined by personality or training to experiential, student-led teaching and learning and to outdoor recreation or environmentalism. Their interest in the natural world and desire to offer hands-on, authentic learning in the community drives them to overcome barriers and acquire the necessary knowledge, tools, and resources.
For schools and districts to spread freshwater PBE more broadly throughout a school, they will have to attend to the policies and structures in the school that support or constrain freshwater PBE. The playbook chapter "Supportive School Policies and Structures" reviews some of the most crucial steps to take and questions to ask
To make the necessary changes for freshwater PBE to really thrive in a school, administrators may need their own professional learning to help them consider such things as:
- How does freshwater PBE intersect with key teaching and learning goals of my school/district?
- How have others used freshwater PBE to deliver educational improvements and benefits for the whole child, whole school, and whole community? How long should I expect it to take for these benefits to be visible?
- What roles must I play if freshwater PBE is to take root and be well-executed in my school or district?
- What does research and scholarship have to say about implementation of experiential pedagogies?
- What sustainable sources of funding can be used to meet the costs of transportation, substitute teachers, and professional learning?
Administrators may also need to educate other decision-makers in the district about freshwater PBE.
Indicators that a school has a strong freshwater PBE practice
When a school has a strong freshwater PBE practice, freshwater PBE is part of the regular operation and culture of the school:
- Multiple teachers are knowledgeable about freshwater PBE, are available to mentor their colleagues, and have field-tested project ideas to share with teachers new to freshwater PBE.
- Core concepts of Great Lakes and freshwater literacy have been internalized and mapped against the Michigan standards and benchmarks in all core subject areas.
- Several organizations from the community have likely served as partners to teachers and students, helping them to identify quality opportunities to serve the community's freshwater stewardship needs, providing help and guidance as projects are planned and carried out, and sharing information about water-related careers. The school and the partner organizations think of themselves as long-term partners, talking periodically about their needs and the benefits they are experiencing from the partnership.
- The school has systems in place to help teachers acquire, refine, and refresh the relevant teaching skills, with a particular emphasis on skills for inquiry-based, facilitative teaching and project management.
- Some equipment for freshwater projects is on hand, and there is organizational knowledge about where to acquire other needed materials and supplies.
- The school hosts or supports events where students share their work and impacts and are recognized for their contributions.
- Freshwater PBE is part of the school's continuous improvement plan. School administrators have given thought to their underlying improvement needs and how freshwater PBE connects to these, and are collecting data to help them understand outcomes and identify potential enhancements.
When schools begin to achieve the types of changes listed above, freshwater PBE becomes part of the culture: an expectation of families, teachers, and community members, and a core instructional strategy well understood by district staff and leadership. See the examples in this document of grantees of From Students to Stewards, each of which has a unique program of freshwater PBE that fits the local school and draws on local environmental needs and partners.
Options for organizing freshwater PBE throughout a school
At this stage, some schools commit to long-term, recurring projects that define their approaches in each of their grade bands or subject areas. For example, an elementary school with a suitable nearby stream and stormwater infrastructure might engage fifth-grade students in water quality testing and related stewardship actions, engage fourth-grade students in stenciling stormwater drains in community neighborhoods, rely on second and third grade students to be stewards of the in-school recycling and composting programs, and work with kindergarteners and first graders to maintain native plant beds and rain gardens on campus. Teachers at each grade level can integrate English language arts, math, social studies, and science standards and practices into their freshwater work. As students advance in age and grade, they accumulate a sequence of freshwater stewardship experiences and meet a variety of people from the community who play different roles and have different careers related to water.
Schools in other types of communities might field quite different types of long-term projects, depending on their local freshwater resources and mix of local organizations with freshwater knowledge and interest in partnership. And some schools with strong, established freshwater PBE practices do not have recurring, long-term projects. Instead, their practice emphasizes student voice and choice and results in novel freshwater PBE efforts each year. These schools develop advanced pedagogical practices in support of democratic decision-making, and have the types of flexible policies that allow students and teachers to seek out the projects of greatest local value and interest.
Regardless of the form taken by freshwater PBE in a school, students benefit when they have multiple, rigorous, and authentic freshwater PBE experiences over their years of learning; are given the opportunity to engage in real and substantive local issues and to make meaningful contributions; and are publicly acknowledged for their work. When it has these attributes, freshwater PBE helps students see themselves as capable and responsible members of the community with ideas and skills of merit and value.
Resources for Great Lakes and freshwater stewardship learning:
- The partnership database developed by the Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes, and Environment lists a wide variety of Great Lakes and freshwater-related community organizations, resources, and tools.
- Nature at School from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a series of scheduled, live webinars allowing students to meet with interpreters in Michigan State Parks to learn about Michigan's wildlife, plants, ecology, and geologic formations. Past webinars have been recorded and are available at the Nature at School Webinar Series on the Department's YouTube channel.
- Nature at Home from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a compilation of videos, learning activities, and teaching and learning resources about Michigan plants and animals, environmental phenomena, and environmental history.
- Stormwater Runoff: A Template for Place-Based Educators was developed by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative to support place-based educators during the pandemic and includes strategies for carrying out a stormwater-themed PBE effort whether students are learning at school, from home, or both.