Teach for the Watershed program sees huge growth, looks to future

Written by: Tessa Harvey

In 2008, an effort to facilitate and involve local students and classrooms in environmental education was born. Today, that program is known as Teach for the Watershed.

Then, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council program focused on middle school-aged students, with activities both indoors and outdoors. At the start, activities were led by professional mentors and specialized staff members.

Kristine Bersche, who then was the Teach for the Watershed Coordinator for WMEAC, said there was a need for water quality education in the West Michigan classroom, for both the students and the teachers – that it was an opportunity to teach youth in the community the importance of environmental stewardship and provide them opportunities to pique their interest in environmental fields.

The program has grown exponentially since then, from teaching just a few hundred middle schoolers to providing thousands of children in different grade levels and school districts with environmental opportunities.

In just the 2012/2013 school year alone, the program reached almost triple the number of participating students from the previous year.

Now, the program falls under the hands of Jessica Vander Ark, WMEAC’s Director of Environmental Education, and Ondrea Spychalski, WMEAC’s Water Programs Outreach Coordinator.

“Through expanding [the] Teach for the Watershed program,” Vander Ark says, “I hope to inspire the next generation of Great Lakes advocates to care for our unique local resources and create more interest in the science fields.”

Throughout the seasons, the two receive help in leading Teach for the Watershed with the help of community members, volunteers, professionals in the field, and interns.

“It’s a very rewarding and exciting program to have in the city of Grand Rapids,” says Shelby Proffer, one of WMEAC’s environmental education interns during the summer of 2017.  

Interns and volunteers go through watershed educational training to be able to best help students and their teachers learn about West Michigan’s watersheds.

“In the future,” Vander Ark says,”We hope to be able to continue to grow the program in a smart way.  There are other communities in WMEAC’s eight counties that we would like the chance to bring our style of watershed education to. Part of our goal is to help all the West Michigan educators who want to see their students come alive with curiosity and caring for the environment, as well as recognize their own career potential.”

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