Educating the Freshwater Scientists of the Future

By Sumeep Bath, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We often refer to the world’s only whole-lake experimentation site as a living laboratory, where researchers manipulate real-life ecosystems to research the effects of pollutants on freshwater.

You also could call the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) an open-air classroom. With year-round experimentation, breathtaking vistas, educational and recreational activities and a fully equipped camp, it’s the perfect venue for a unique scientific educational experience.

Since 2014, when the International Institute for Sustainable Development took over operation of the IISD-ELA, we have been working on opening our doors. One major facet of that is developing learning experiences and field courses for students and budding scientists.

We want to make sure that today’s students are as excited and informed about freshwater issues as we are, and that the skills, expertise and experience particular to IISD-ELA are transferred to subsequent generations. Threats to our freshwater supplies aren’t going away, especially with the more-pronounced effects of climate change, so we need to continue this vital work.

students paddle experimental lakes area
Students paddle onto one of the IISD-ELA lakes. Credit: IISD-ELA

First up, we reach out to universities. So much of what we do at IISD-ELA comes from partnerships with universities and professors. Students from Lakehead University, the University of Manitoba, Trent University and more who are already studying a related topic have come to hone field research techniques in topics such as limnology, biogeochemistry, fisheries and aquatic sampling. While they are here, they can work side-by-side with world-class researchers to gain invaluable experience.

student paterson experimental lakes area
A student works in the IISD-ELA laboratory with IISD-ELA senior scientist Dr. Michael Paterson. Credit: IISD-ELA

What ELSE, you might ask? Well, the Experimental Lakes Students Expertise (ELSE for short) is now ready to be rolled out at many more schools after having been piloted with St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg. This two-week field experience for high school students gives youth a unique perspective into ecological literacy, freshwater research and systems thinking. The students work with their peers, adult leaders and participating scientists throughout the day, observing, helping, asking, answering, participating and learning about environmental science, limnology, the “whole-ecosystem” concept, chemistry, ecological interactions, human impacts and more.

So far, ELSE has received a resounding thumbs up. When St.John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out on a pilot field course last year, they learned everything from quinzhee construction, fire-making, outdoor cooking, snowshoeing, skiing to general outdoor survival — all in the frigid March temperatures of northwestern Ontario, where the IISD-ELA is located.  The full ELSE course will be rolled out in July 2017.

But students need not even visit the site to experience the importance of IISD-ELA’s freshwater research. We recently, with funding from Canada’s RBC Blue Water Project, hosted an essay contest for Canadian high school students, asking them “How can we improve Canada’s fresh water?”

The response was impressive. More than 30 students from across the country entered with essays exploring how to save Lake Winnipeg, how we can improve water quality in the Great Lakes, and ideas for overall watershed management in Canada. Two deserving winners are about to be announced soon. Stay tuned to future issues of Great Lakes Connection.

Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

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