One approach to fostering environmental stewardship is to get people involved in water activities as children. An educational initiative by Genesee Riverwatch in upstate New York has been doing exactly that by helping teachers get students excited about their local Genesee River.
Chris Widmaier, a Rochester-based science teacher and member of Riverwatch’s Aquatic Education Initiative steering committee, said the organization received a $20,000 grant from the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute in 2017. Riverwatch members discussed how they could build an educational program to connect K-12 students with the river system, how rivers are impacted by human activities and the different types of human communities along their courses. In turn, Riverwatch leaders hoped, this would get children and their families to take a greater role in protecting the waterway.
Riverwatch settled on a three-pronged approach: the first was an Aquatic Educators Network to bring together classroom teachers with experts working in government agencies, conservation organizations, universities and the like.
The second part involved writing lesson plans focused on the Genesee River and issues like water quality, pollution and the ecosystem surrounding it. These were posted on the Riverwatch website for download, beginning in 2018.
For the final part, the organization held trainings with local teachers, five to six at a time, to help them consider methods of using the preexisting lesson plans or developing their own. This included public outreach and sessions for an educational workshop. The goal was to help teachers figure out a sustained method to educate their students about the local watershed and get the students involved in working to protect it.
“We gave my students a chance to connect several concepts related to river systems in a fun and thoughtful manner,” said Chris Orr, a teacher who took part in a workshop. “More importantly, (the workshops) allowed them to connect with the Genesee River, a central part of their lives that many of them admitted they had taken for granted … I'd recommend these activities to any teacher looking to get students outside and connected to their local ecosystem.”
Widmaier says his group has engaged with more than 200 teachers through workshops in the last few years.
“We’re making connections between people and the resources they have, and this will lead to stewardship of the waters,” said Widmaier, who presented on the initiative at the International Association for Great Lakes Research conference in 2019. “We’re seeing evidence that this approach is working.”
Riverwatch is not the only program doing this kind of work. For instance, In Canada, Project WET has been producing instructional resources for educators to use with students since the mid-1990s. The WET program also runs periodic workshops for teachers across the country about educating using local resources, and works in each province and territory to align with their unique curriculum needs.
Riverwatch is taking steps to broaden its scope. While the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute grant that kicked off the workshops has been exhausted, Riverwatch is now partnering with St. John Fisher College to expand its efforts through the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
A new $80,000 grant from NOAA will allow Riverwatch to organize broader workshops for about 20 teachers over the course of a year, starting this summer. While the organization is prioritizing recruitment of teachers from areas identified as “environmental justice priority communities” by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the new workshops are open to educators from the entire Lake Ontario watershed, including the province of Ontario.
Applications are being taken until April 30, with a four-day workshop planned for July.
The new initiative will run through July 2021, Widmaier said, with coaching throughout that period for teachers. This would culminate in teachers and students being brought in for an outdoor poster session in Rochester in June 2021 to share what they’ve done and learned.
And as for what Genesee Riverwatch has learned from its years with these educational outreach programs, Widmaier said there’s been a recognition that many different groups are doing interesting work around the watershed. As such, it’s important to continue connecting people between organizations and geographic areas - cities, rural areas, farmland – to help them understand how they collectively and individually affect the waterways that connect all of them.
“Part of our effort is about building community, and building people’s potential for collective impacts,” Widmaier said.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.