Meaningful Water-Based Education

From time to time, ISEA will share Great Lakes experiences from guest bloggers. In this blog, Colleen McVeigh shares the meaningful water-based education opportunities she delivers to teachers and students in the Chicago area. Email if you would like to submit a Great Lakes experience to be featured.

As an Urban Conservation Educator for the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, I support teachers in their quest to bring high-quality environmental education instruction and experiences to their students. While I have a strong knowledge of terrestrial ecosystems and their component plants and animals, I had only a rudimentary knowledge of water-based systems. Thus, in the summer of 2021, I jumped at the chance to participate in the Great Lakes Watershed Field Course held at the Inland Seas Education Association in Suttons Bay. Not only would I gain hands-on experience and knowledge through the course and interaction with its instructors, but I would also have an opportunity to work with educators around the Great Lakes region to plan and problem-solve around the logistics of bringing meaningful water-based education to students.

In our programming at the Museum, we use two curricula. Mighty Acorns for intermediate grades, and Earth Force for middle and high school students. Using the Earth Force process, teachers and I guide students through various steps to complete a locally-based environmental action project. Many of the schools with which I work serve low-income families in historically underserved neighborhoods.  Several of these schools are sited in environmental justice areas in which decades of pollution have left a legacy on air, soil, and water. 

Student analyzing lake sample
Student analyzing a lake sample

Participating in the Watershed Field Course enabled me to refine my knowledge and hone my skills at understanding and investigating watersheds, flooding issues, and water quality to support teachers and students to identify, investigate and propose solutions to the water quality issues in their community. Two middle school classes in a highly industrialized area of Chicago chose to address water quality issues in their community after learning about the legacy of industrial pollution. I used the knowledge I gained from participating in the Field Course to craft several classroom lessons as well as outdoor investigations to support teachers and students to investigate the issues and to craft proposals for solutions. 

After learning that the area in which they live had been biodiverse wetlands prior to industrialization, students in one class decided to measure the water quality of an isolated man-made lake in a nearby forest preserve. The lake is stocked for fishing and students wanted to assess physical, chemical, and biotic measures to ensure that the fish in the lake were safe for consumption. Students in another class opted to perform the same assessments at a known polluted waterway nearby that for years had been used by local industry. Both classes tallied their findings in graphics that they then shared with one another to compare results.

Students found that the water in both systems was markedly different in all aspects. While an abundance of macroinvertebrates as well as other organisms were found in the lake, the nearby river yielded only two or three pollution-tolerant species. Likewise, chemical testing of the water revealed similar results. While students were pleased to find the fish in the lake seemed safe for consumption, they still worried about future pollution from the area and recommended regular monitoring. Students who investigated the river met with a local land restoration group to discuss plans for remediation along the river’s watershed and suggested that native plants be included on both the banks and in wetland restorations to assist with the bioremediation of the river.

Students presenting at Science Summit
Students presenting at the Environmental Science Summit

At the end of the year, students from both classes presented their findings and proposed solutions at an Environmental Science Summit hosted annually at the Field Museum for partner schools. At the summit, students strengthened their oratorical and leadership skills by presenting to their peers, Museum scientists, and the general public on their findings.

This summer I returned to ISEA to participate in a two-day reunion with other 2021 attendees as well as to dig deeper into watershed content and pedagogy. As my goal for teachers is to develop the knowledge, skills, and confidence to pursue watershed education and experiences on their own, I used the time to consider professional development implications. Later in the summer, I developed and delivered a ‘Deep Dive’ watershed seminar for teachers in which teachers learned about lessons and activities for the classroom with a partner organization, Alliance for the Great Lakes. The Alliance graciously provided teachers with a copy of their curriculum ‘Great Lakes in my World.’ The next day, I took teachers out to a nearby park on Lake Michigan to apply their learning and gain experience in field studies by engaging in macroinvertebrate classification and analysis. Participating teachers plan to launch watershed units as part of their science curricula and related Earth Force projects this school year. In the future, I would love to be able to bring teachers up to Suttons Bay to experience the 4-day course for themselves and to further develop their knowledge base.

Thank you Inland Seas Education Association for the knowledge, experience, and support to create meaningful learning for our students!

Colleen McVeigh works at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL, and leads Youth Conservation Action’s environmental education capacity building for educators. She works directly with teachers to enact stewardship and environmental learning for students in grades 3-8. Last school year, 25 teachers and almost 800 students participated in YCA programming. She is a National Board certified teacher with more than 25 years of experience working with youth and is a certified Master Naturalist through the University of Illinois Extension. One of her long-term goals is to develop lessons and activities for elementary students that utilize scientific data in an authentic and accessible way. When not at work, Colleen indulges her passion for the Great Lakes region with camping trips to the lakes. While Lake Michigan will always be home, Lake Superior has her heart.

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