Watershed Education - Place Based Education - West Michigan Environmental Action Council

Place Based Education

If you’ve followed our work here at WMEAC, you may know that our Teach for the Watershed program has grown exponentially over the last few years. Over the last year, we will have reached 4,500 students with crucial science education. We are getting ready to present some of our work this week at the Place Based Education Conference at Grand Valley State University, hosted by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.

Preparing to present at this conference has caused me to reflect on the principles that we hope contribute a lot of meaning to Teach for the Watershed. We can deliver a lot more value in our work with students by incorporating the principles of place based education and communicating the importance of science education.

Place based education is rooted in utilizing the community as a classroom, exploring local subjects, and engaging local experts and community members. Place based education is hands-on and offers a tangible, local example that can demonstrate regional and global issues and systems. The learning is highly interdisciplinary and ultimately instills a love of place. At WMEAC, we know that students aren’t future citizens—they’re current citizens who need the vocabulary and skills to contribute to their community.

Each time we bring a classroom to their nearest stream, we pose a question that we hope gives students a sense of ownership over their research: If someone asked you if this stream was healthy, what would you tell them? Then, water chemistry and macroinvertebrate sampling gain meaning and purpose, and students are empowered with information about a piece of their community.

Students are incredibly motivated by their findings. We often have to follow up their research by helping students with litter pick-ups, invasive species pulling, rain barrel workshops, or installing a rain garden. They are compelled by what they’ve learned and show leadership in doing something to protect their watershed. We want students to know that environmental issues have local impacts and that they can do something to alleviate or prevent those impacts.

Invariably, a student will ask me, “Is this your job? Do you get paid for this?” It’s a poignant question. We get excited to tell them, “Yes, this is my job. I studied science to get it.” The question is an opportunity for a student to imagine themselves in a science-based job. Although communicating the importance of STEM subjects is not the direct objective of Teach for the Watershed, it has become a crucial piece of our dialog with students that we are really passionate about.

We know from our own work that exploring and solving environmental issues does not occur in a vacuum. The WMEAC staff comes from a variety of academic disciplines. We cannot advance our mission or engage folks all across West Michigan without an interdisciplinary approach. We want to communicate to students that all talents and skills are needed to make our community a vibrant place to live—but science competency is at the heart of making a difference.

We are incredibly proud of our work as our partnerships grow to include Grand Rapids Public Schools and expands along the lakeshore across West Ottawa. Wherever Teach for the Watershed takes us, we will deliver watershed education through a local lens, empower students by equipping them with vocabulary and data, and communicate to students the importance of science competency. After all, science careers are not just lab coats and microscopes, but they’re also nets and waders.

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