By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — From owl pellets to ecosystems, investigation to invasive species, area students are transcending classroom walls.
Thanks in part to the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative, their teachers are integrating lessons across subjects while challenging students and facilitating learning.
This year, the initiative includes 39 teachers on 13 teams from 11 area schools, all working on watershed stewardship projects with their students. Nearly all of the teachers plus 15 community partners will gather Tuesday for the annual Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative Dinner & Dialogue event.
The event's goal is to discuss, network and learn about the various stewardship projects slated for this school year
"Teachers will be given an opportunity to present their project idea to an audience of teacher colleagues and community partners who will in turn, give feedback and suggestions to each team to assist with and contribute to the project's success," said Jenifer Strauss, the program's coordinator. Some teacher teams started stewardship projects last year and will present plans to expand their project goals for a greater community impact."
In the Elk Rapids Schools, one facet of the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative is geared to engaging the system's 113 sixth graders. The students will spend this school year studying and caring for the Maple Bay Natural Area and the Dam Beach. This means pulling invasive species and replacing it with dune grass, dissecting owl pellets, photographing and identifying bark and leaves and making a video of their experiences.
"This is our second year and we're just getting to realize all of the opportunities for learning," said Sarah Pierson, the district's Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative teacher, teacher liaison and consultant. "We are truly trying to involve all the subject areas."
Launched in 2009 as an education program of the Grand Traverse Conservation District, the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative's mission is to boost freshwater stewardship in the region. The program works with cross-curricular teams of teachers at elementary, middle and high schools to support place-based education, nurture school-community partnerships and provide ongoing professional development to teachers.
It is an outgrowth of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, a statewide effort started in 2007 that features eight regional hubs, including the Grand Traverse program. The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative is rooted in the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College's 2004 outreach to teachers.
Known first as RIPPLE and then the DTE Freshwater Institute for Teachers, this effort brought placed-based education directly to classrooms.
Eight years and a few iterations later, teachers and classrooms remain the core of the vision to inspire a lifetime of freshwater stewardship.
"The GLSI is striving to become a catalyst for a grand realization that the children and teachers sitting in classrooms throughout Michigan are our very best hope for the future," said Treenen Sturman, executive director of the Grand Traverse Conservation District.
"The future we imagine will be very different from any past that any of us can recall ... this future will be built on a common appreciation for nature, culture and economy," he added. "Such a future requires schools to once again become the centers of our communities."
The 2012-2013 school year kicked off with a weeklong gathering in August where teachers worked on project proposals and grant applications. Reviewing the requests submitted at the end of September, the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative selected 13 $1,500 grants — a total of $19,500 disbursed.
Some projects include a yearlong study at Old Mission Elementary of the school's pond, which will allow students to be certified as Watershed Rangers. At Mill Creek Elementary School in Elk Rapids, students will examine native plants to understand nature's cycle of change. Students there will also install and monitor rain barrels and weather stations.
Traverse City East Middle School students will study and practice renewable energy, erosion control, storm water runoff, composting and vertical gardening.
"The Stewardship Initiative supports teachers and empowers students to find their voice and express their expertise in positive and impacting ways," said Strauss. "As a result, GTSI students are becoming informed citizens who care more deeply about choices that affect their futures."