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For a week, the eight teachers explored the St. Louis River, from its headwaters to its mouth at Lake Superior. They analyzed water samples, learned about stocking sturgeon, and even paddled the river's broad waters.
Perhaps best of all, though, they spent a lot of time developing and exchanging ideas about how they can use hands-on science to get their students interested in learning, teach them about the environment, and instill in them the habit of thinking and asking questions.
Rivers 2 Lakes program
The teachers are taking part in the Rivers 2 Lakes education program through the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve. The program enables teachers at six Northland schools to gain first-hand knowledge of the river and learn more about its role in the region's history and economy as well as its importance as a natural resource.
The teachers concluded the first phase of the program August 10, when they reached Superior after five days of traveling and learning along the river.
Learning more about the river
Dan O'Connell, seventh-grade science teacher at Superior Middle School, said the group's activities including collecting and analyzing water samples.
"I'm already doing this type of testing with my students. This is a good way to learn more about testing but also to learn about geology and how that affects water quality," he said.
The teachers also visited the Fond du Lac Reservation to learn how the Ojibwe band stocks sturgeon and manages wild rice resources.
New ideas for teaching
Several teachers said they enrolled in the program to develop more ways to involve their students in studying the environment around their homes. Hands-on learning in which students do practical things like test water quality is important to gaining and holding their interest. Those kinds of projects demonstrate how science fits into real life and also involve the students in reading, writing and critical thinking.
"I have my students collect real data," said Beth Hoagland, who will teach science to seventh- to 12th-graders this fall at South Shore school in Port Wing, Wis. "They are a lot more interested when they're working with data about something involving themselves and coming up with a solution."
"This is another way to get kids to ask questions about things that affect their lives," she added.
Getting students outdoors
For Heidi Ojibway, first-grader teacher at South Ridge Elementary School in Culver, Minn., the Rivers 2 Lakes program is helping her achieve two goals: Involving more students in hands-on learning and getting more students outdoors for exercise.
Ojibway said she plans to have her students study plants and animals around their school and take occasional field trips to learn about the environment.
"If you start at home, their interest will grow," she said.
Program continues for a year
The Rivers 2 Lakes program doesn't end with one week of work. Over the next year, educators from Lake Superior NERR will work with the teachers to help them incorporate knowledge about the watershed into lessons for their students and to create outdoor lessons that can be taught at their own schools. The grant-funded program also will pay to transport students to outdoor education sites around the St. Louis River estuary and to provide classroom resources.
"We're hoping to create longer-term relationships with schools so we can help teachers incorporate knowledge about our natural resources and our local economic resources and research into their classrooms," said Deanna Erickson, education coordinator for the Lake Superior NERR.
Mentoring for teachers
Being able to network with other teachers is one of key parts of the program for Rita Farchmin, who is in the early years of her teaching career.
"The big thing for me is to have the ongoing mentoring," she said.
Rivers 2 Lakes enables educators at Lake Superior NERR to work with teachers at Superior Middle School and Lake Superior Elementary School as well as Carlton High School, Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, South Shore School in Port Wing, Wis., and South Ridge Elementary School in Culver, Minn. Four additional teachers will begin the program in September.
The Lake Superior NERR was designated by NOAA in 2010 and covers nearly 16,700 acres of marshes, uplands, rivers and Lake Superior shoreline that are part of the St. Louis River estuary in Douglas County. With headquarters on Barkers Island in Superior, the reserve serves as a site to study natural resource management techniques and apply what is learned to problems facing coastal communities. The reserve's educational programs enable people to experience freshwater estuaries and their unique resources, making it a community asset and a destination for students and visitors.
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