Students who live in Great Lakes states or near an ocean coast may know about the importance of those natural resources from school, but many have never had the chance to experience that particular ecosystem up close. To help them connect the theory of what they learn in class with hands-on experiences that bring them closer to their local natural areas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) created the Bay Watershed Education & Training (B-WET) program in 2002.
B-WET is an environmental education program, funded by NOAA’s Office of Education, that promotes locally relevant learning through hands-on experiences for K-12 students. B-WET programs currently exist in seven regions: California, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, New England, and the Pacific Northwest.
In the Great Lakes region, one B-WET project, led by Pennsylvania Sea Grant in
cooperation with Ohio Sea Grant, combines a three-day teacher education workshop with year-long support and funding for at least one stewardship project or other Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE), to be completed with students at the teachers’ home schools. That support includes everything from funding to having B-WET staff help teachers come up with service projects and other ideas during visits and monthly phone calls.
“Through the science club, we’ll take some of these kids on field trips, and it allows them to be a part of something.”
“So many times, you go to a workshop and get ideas, but you never get any follow up from the program,” says Lyndsey Manzo, Ohio Sea Grant Educator and one of the program organizers. “You want to take students to a water treatment plant, for example, but you don’t have any money to cover a substitute teacher or the bus. Here we were providing all of that, and one of our goals was to be able to really let teachers implement what they learned with their students.”
During the summer workshop, held in Erie, Pennsylvania and Bay Village, Ohio, teachers not only learned about some of the curriculum lessons available from state Sea Grant offices, but also became actively engaged in their own MWEEs. Participants removed invasive plant species with an Erie group called Weed Warriors, learned how to plan a rain garden, kayaked on Lake Erie, and cleaned up Huntington Beach, a local Cleveland beach, as part of the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program.
Ohio teachers Bonnie Sansenbaugher and Lisa Bircher from East Palestine High School near Youngstown have taken the ideas they got during the initial workshop and run with them back in their classrooms. They started a science club at their high school, which currently has 22 members who are all strongly engaged in the activities and learning experiences provided by the group.
“We have some students that would not have been in any other clubs because they think that they’re not athletic, they don’t have a lot of money, but science interests them,” says Bircher. “Through the science club, we’ll take some of these kids on field trips, and it allows them to be a part of something. We have 22 strong members, who are learning a lot about the Great Lakes, wetlands, watersheds, everything that we’ve presented to them they’ve just absorbed.”
B-WET also requires teachers and their students to participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. “That experience was very powerful for them,” says Sansenbaugher. “We removed a lot of trash, 235.5 pounds of it, and that really emphasized that most of the stuff that’s in the ocean comes from land based activities, which is us, and if you clean it up now it has less chance of ending up in the ocean and in the Great Lakes.”
In addition to an overnight camp trip in the spring, science club members are planning a presentation to the school board, giving them valuable practice in public speaking and community participation. The students will present their ideas for an outdoor education area on school property, which would be accessible not only to the high school, but to middle and elementary school students as well.
“Our superintendent is jumping on board with that idea,” Sansenbaugher adds. “He’s definitely been excited about us doing this.”
Sansenbaugher and Bircher are also working on grant proposals that would fund additional activities for their students, such as another trip on the Environaut, Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s research and education vessel. Overall, the experience has shown them just how much they can accomplish for their students when they continue to motivate each other.
“There is no way either of us could have been anywhere near as productive as we’ve been this year, but this way, we’re really able to keep motivating each other” says Bircher. And if their students have anything to say about it, they’ll be having fun with their science club for quite a while yet.