|Stephanie Francis (right) with Leanne Bronson. Both are sixth grade science teachers at Superior Middle School in Superior, Wisc. Photo: Michael Anderson|
|Sarah Lerohl of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District collects a water sample in the St. Louis River Estuary. Photo: Marie Zhuikov, Wisconsin Sea Grant|
Education is a vital part of Minnesota Sea Grant's (MNSG’s) mission. In one of their latest efforts, MNSG worked with scientists from UMD’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute to conduct a workshop for educators focused on how place-based games can be used to meet classroom standards and informal education goals.
The workshop was designed to teach science in a fun and technologically savvy way. George Host and Richard Axler, both senior research associates at NRRI, were the Minnesota principal investigators for the research project and the resulting workshop, which were funded jointly by Minnesota and Wisconsin Sea Grant. Now nearing completion, the research project quantified land-based characteristics that affect aquatic conditions in the St. Louis River Estuary.
On June 11 and 12, MNSG and its partners took 29 educators out into the St. Louis River Estuary by boat and on foot, exploring the area, hearing stories from local residents, using place-based educational geocaches and games, and meeting scientists and resource managers to better understand the ecosystem and its issues. Geocaching is an outdoor activity where people use GPS-enabled devices to find hidden items or containers called geocaches. "One of the goals of the workshop was to incorporate environmental information into a geocaching activity. We asked participants to search beach sites along Barker's Island for geocaches containing aquatic creatures, and interpret what they found," said George Host, ecologist and avid geocacher.
Cindy Hagley, MNSG Environmental Quality Educator and facilitator for this workshop demonstrated the new St. Louis River Estuary website, which links science and stories of the estuary. Janet Silbernagel, professor at UW Madison, described the stories as spatial narratives that capture oral perspectives from local people emphasizing the area’s rich cultural, economic, and environmental history. The workshop also featured a mobile phone-based storytelling application that enables users to create and share their own location-based quests.
Stephanie Francis, who teaches sixth grade science at Superior Middle School, has done geocaching in the classroom "on a basic level," she said. Francis found the workshop useful both personally and professionally. "I've only lived in the area for a year, so this was a great learning opportunity for me. It's important for me to have personal experiences that I can take back to my students." The workshop took place about three miles from her school. "I will have the opportunity to take my students to the same area where I was, getting them outside. I can show them that science isn't just inside the classroom; science is also right in our own backyard."
Francis was pleased to be able to share the experience with another educator from her school who also teaches sixth grade science, Leanne Bronson. "To have a common learning experience with my colleague at no expense was a huge advantage," she said. Often, with today's budget cuts, educators have to pay for learning experiences such as these out of their own pockets, and they don't often get to participate in the same workshop.
Sarah Lerohl, environmental program coordinator for the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), does public outreach to all ages, from elementary school children to adults, on such areas as the environment, public health, water treatment, and solid waste recycling. "WLSSD does a lot of tabling at events and fairs throughout the year," she said. She gained insights on using technology to advance their educational mission. "We liked the idea of using GPS in activities. The information on the use of QR Codes [Quick Response Codes] was very helpful," Lerohl stated. She also enjoyed the camaraderie. "Just to be in the same room with other people who are so connected with the river was great."
The new Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve hosted the workshop for educators at its headquarters on Barkers Island. For more information about the project, visit the Minnesota Sea Grant website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org; 218-726-8106.
Written by Cheryl Reitan, Christina Higgins, and Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, June 2012