A group of children ran by laughing while our crew finished collecting samples at Windermere Creek, following annual stream-monitoring protocol developed by the Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network (CABIN). Between stooping down and collecting grass, bugs and dirt in her cup, one little girl hardly had the breath to answer when I asked what she was busy gathering: “They’re for my experiments!” she exclaimed. Perhaps this budding scientist was already an outdoor lab enthusiast, but chances are her curiosity was roused when she saw our team from Living Lakes Canada and Lake Windermere Ambassadors in waders, testing her neighbourhood waters. Fortunately for her, ‘outdoor classrooms’ are not uncommon in the Columbia Valley. Courses are being designed to actively integrate school, community and environment, an approach that has been called ‘place-based education’, and environmental educators are developing creative ways to build meaningful contextual experiences into student curricula.
What is watershed-based education?
Just last month, I was able to join a group of environmental educators in Canal Flats, as they brainstormed ways to inspire youth to learn about their waterways for Columbia Basin Trust’s Know Your Watershed Program. A regionally-based water stewardship initiative geared towards Grade 8 science students, ‘Know Your Watershed’ is a program that connects students with real-world examples of water projects and professionals, illustrating how the knowledge they are obtaining applies to their communities. ‘Know Your Watershed’ has joined students with community action projects since 2010. Locally, projects have included building and installing bat boxes at Kinsmen Beach and storm-water pollution awareness painting for Trout Unlimited Canada’s Yellow Fish Road Program. In the future, projects may expand to partner with community-based initiatives that provide services related to native and non-native aquatic plant species, greywater re-use and wetland education. Inspiration from around and outside of the Basin is endless.
Southwest in Washington State, the City of Lacey has partnered with neighbouring communities to form a cooperative group called ‘Stream Team’ which delivered a program called ‘watersheducation’ to over 1,200 students last year alone. ‘Watersheducation’ is a 4-day workshop in which Grade 7 and 8 students are guided in the planning and building of a working wetland model. The model demonstrates rainwater being soaked through spongy materials while run-off flows to the center. Students can observe collected water from a beaker installed below the model. Kim Benedict, Water Resource Specialist of The City of Lacey, said ‘watersheducation’ is designed to be more holistic than traditional science lessons. Though the workshop still complies with government-issued science standards, it makes the watershed concept more real to students. “They understand that if they pave part of their land, it will effect run-off and ultimately the watershed. They see for themselves the impact and it makes education that much more exciting” she explained.
It’s important to recognize here that place-based education, and even ‘watersheducation’ are not new ideas. Historically, traditional Indigenous education emphasized a holistic view of natural systems. Learning was considered as much a spiritual, social and cultural process as a cognitive one, and something that occurred throughout each day, over the course of one’s lifetime. In these terms, designing curricula deliberately with our local environment and a sustainable future in mind might qualify as being ‘radical’. Radical actually stems from the Latin words radicalis – meaning “of or having roots” and radix, meaning simply “root”.
When asked why youth-oriented watershed education is important in the Columbia Valley, Environmental Educator with Wildsight Kalista Pruden answered, “We are so close to water everywhere in the Columbia Valley that sometimes we take it for granted. Hopefully, by continuing to deliver watershed education programs in our region, we can provide youth with the information they need to protect and conserve vibrant, healthy watersheds.” As a local resident, Pruden stressed the value of understanding the water in one’s ‘backyard’, using the example of touring water treatment facilities so that students can see where their drinking water comes from. “Caring for water is everyone’s responsibility, and with good watershed education, tomorrow’s community and leaders will be equipped to be stewards of our planet’s life blood.”