|Editor's Note: When this article was originally published, two of the authors were left off the list. This has been corrected in this online version.|
The gulf of Maine. NASA
The ocean and estuarine ecosystems of both the United States and Canada are under considerable stress from factors such as pollution runoff, overfishing, coastal development, and the introduction of nonnative species (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy 2004). Coastal communities use watersheds in numerous ways and depend on them for employment and recreation. It is therefore paramount that citizens, particularly young people, are aware of the importance of protecting and preserving watersheds. The Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI) is striving to empower youth to take on stewardship roles in their communities. Through its Community Based Initiative (CBI) program, GOMI connects students across international boundaries within the Gulf of Maine bioregion, which includes much of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, all of Maine, and a small part of Quebec.
GOMI addresses environmental degradation by working with teams of students, teachers, and community members from around the Gulf of Maine to inspire youth to be stewards of the gulf and its watershed. In preparing young enthusiastic leaders who will take on these stewardship roles in their communities, GOMI provides solid training in environmental sciences and civic engagement. As a result, students become more environmentally aware and actively contribute to environmental initiatives in their hometowns. This bioregional approach helps participants from urban, suburban, and rural communities in Canada and the United States relate to one another as they learn about the interconnectedness of their watershed and their dependence on its continued health.
For the past six years, teams of middle and high school students and teachers from around the Gulf of Maine region have participated in the international CBI program. The program requires a commitment of two academic years combined with two summer residential CBI workshops. Participants are recruited via environmental groups and school systems and a team is typically composed of seven students and three adult mentors. Students apply as a team to participate in the program and are not charged any costs for the residential summer institute. The program is run with the help of a dedicated board and many volunteer partners, such as university scientists, public school teachers, members of community environmental groups, and government officials. Interested teams with a problem proposal apply to participate in the GOMI institute. Attempts are made to keep the team mixed with both first- and second-year participants. The second-year students help mentor the first-year students in order to keep some project continuity through the two-year cycle.
The CBI summer workshop
At the weeklong summer CBI workshop part of the program, student-mentor teams collaborate with other students, teachers, scientists, and community members on problem-based projects; are exposed to environmental stewardship concepts; and develop a project plan to be implemented in their home community. Then, during the academic year, student-mentor teams implement their home-based CBI projects. The main focus of the program is to empower students to be effective leaders as they explore ideas around stewardship and civic engagement in their local and regional environments.
The weeklong summer residential workshop is the highlight of the year for the teams and GOMI organizers. At the workshop, teams connect with one another and set and adjust their goals. During this intensive week of workshops and interdisciplinary activities, teams learn
- the basis of scientific inquiry;
- how their local efforts will promote the health of the entire bioregion;
- techniques of project planning, execution, and presentation;
- approaches to presenting scientific findings and recommendations to councils or planning boards; and
- how to involve larger groups of citizens in their projects.
For instance, in 2006, the summer CBI workshop took place in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, Canada, where eight teams gathered: four from Massachusetts, one from New Hampshire, one from New Brunswick, and two from Nova Scotia. The week began with student presentations on their current “home” projects or proposed projects. The student participants were geographically mixed to form new teams to work on theme projects of concern in the Cornwallis area; this allows each “home” team to learn and take home skills acquired from each theme project. The week culminated with presentations of the theme projects before an invited panel of guests; in these presentations students were able to practice the skills they learned by presenting their findings and leading discussions with community stakeholders.
During the 2006 summer CBI workshop, there were four theme projects, each led by a theme leader who had expert knowledge and/or a vested interest in the project. In the process of working on their theme projects, students were engaged in fieldwork, talked with local stakeholders, and learned project planning skills. Each theme project was unique and allowed teams to acquire skills in a variety of areas. Some brief descriptions of the theme projects are described here.
St. Mary’s Bay Marshland Conversion theme project was led by Peter MacDonald, a biologist with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. The team examined the impacts of removing the dyke to allow tidal waters back into a 16 km2 marsh at the head of Saint Mary’s Bay. Participants looked at and mapped the extent of tidal influence inland and examined the status of existing vegetation, fish, insects, birds, small and large mammals, and human use in different habitats to help predict what changes would occur. Social and philosophical questions regarding human history and the justification for restoring lost salt marsh versus land use for agriculture were addressed.
Wetland Wildlife Reserve Interpretation and Trail theme project was lead by Warren Paten, a community activist and high school teacher at Digby High School, in Nova Scotia. The team examined a 60 acre tract of wetland and uplands in the upper St. Mary’s Bay marshlands near Digby, Nova Scotia. They outlined habitat types, identified species of plants and animals, considered food web connections, and evaluated past human impacts on the site. This information was used to develop plans for restoration and interpretation of the site as an educational and tourist feature. The potential consequences of restoring this area to salt marsh habitat were discussed with the companion St. Mary’s Bay group.
Water Quality Assessment theme project was lead by Mike Brylinsky, a scientist at Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The team compared two approaches to water-quality testing: measurement of pH and dissolved oxygen levels, and the use of bioindicators (using measures of the abundance and types of stream organisms present). Students compared the two approaches by using both to evaluate the water quality of a number of streams within a nearby watershed. The team was first introduced to the various chemical techniques and given a quick overview of the different types of organisms that are used as bioindicators, with emphasis on aquatic insects and other invertebrates. The team then collected samples in the field and brought them back for further analysis in a makeshift lab. The results were tabulated in a format that allowed comparisons to be made and conclusions to be drawn about which of the two techniques appeared to give the better indication of water quality.
Mi’kmaw Uses of Watersheds theme project was lead by Shalan Joudry, a Mi’kmaw biologist with Bear River Band, Nova Scotia. The Mi’kmaw are indigenous people from eastern Canada. The team learned about the Mi’kmaws’ historic relationships with Nova Scotia/New Brunswick/Maine watersheds. Bear River First Nations hosted a series of workshops looking at Mi’kmaw history and culture, focusing on the traditional uses of watersheds. Waterways were of great importance to the Mi’kmaw because they served as transportation routes and as ways to acquire food and other resources. The final stage of the project involved a canoe trip on a traditional canoe route between Annapolis and Kejimkujik National Park.
Through the theme projects, and in the final presentations, students were exposed to decision-making processes that encompassed complex and conflicting values and interests, as well as incomplete scientific information. These are all crucial dimensions of authentic scientific “meaning making” for adolescents and valuable experiences in their own right (Mortimer and Scott 2003).
Throughout the summer workshop, students were at the forefront of the activities and were encouraged to take on leadership roles. The organizers established an atmosphere of respect and responsibility early on in the week with participants following a schedule. In addition to formal sessions, informal evening activities were designed to help achieve the goals of the week.
The location of the summer CBI workshop rotates yearly through the five jurisdictions (three states and two provinces) thus allowing participants to travel internationally and see other parts of their bioregion. This rotation brings about novel experiences for students. For some of the student participants in the 2006 program, it was their first time in Canada and for some, their first time out of a very urban environment; for one student, it was her first time seeing a live cow! The workshops emphasize a team-based hands-on and minds-on approach to learning and project planning.
School year initiatives
During the academic year, teams work on home projects focused on an environmental issue in their local community. The problem theme-issue is chosen by students working in conjunction with a local community environmental group. Each initiative requires recruiting other members in the community, conducting research, and presenting findings and recommendations back to the public. Current CBI plans include:
- Salt marsh restoration and cleanup to include a public campaign called “Minding Your Business” to encourage dog owners to clean up after their dogs;
- Creation of a multiple-use downtown recreation and social service center and restoration of a salt marsh to a nature reserve;
- Continuation of salt marsh invasive species removal and a public awareness campaign;
- Fish habitat restoration and water-quality testing along the Assabet and Concord rivers in Massachusetts;
- Conducting migratory water fowl banding along the wetlands flyway during which all Mallard ducks will be tested for bird flu virus (under careful supervision with rigorous safety guidelines); and
- Habitat restoration for the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus, a threatened shorebird) and dune restoration along Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia.
Students enjoy participating in the GOMI experience because it is fun and allows them to meet other students with similar concerns about the environment. Students also see the program as a good way to bring ideas back to their school and community and incorporate the skills that they are learning into other areas of their life. Some students come to this program with a very developed understanding of environmental issues and what they can do as citizens; for others, working on a community environmental project is something completely new. Students gain a feeling of accomplishment and the knowledge that they can be “part of the solution” by working with and giving back to their communities.
Taking care of the future
The GOMI-CBI program combines collaborative inquiry and problem-based learning activities to provide a real-life context for the participants. Constructivist learning theory suggests that the opportunity to develop expertise with open-ended problems—including the design, development, and execution of a science-based community plan—develops motivation and promotes self-directed and active learning habits (Ratcliffe and Grace 2003). In working with scientists, both teachers and students have an opportunity to better understand the nature of authentic scientific inquiry and practice the higher-order thinking skills that successful community projects require. The community-based nature of the GOMI experience with its emphasis on practical problem-solving and hands-on empowerment are key factors in nurturing environmental stewardship in youth.
The student-centered nature of the GOMI projects and the mentoring and extended opportunities for group discussions reinforce the important role of scientific dialog and the transfer of knowledge from the classroom to the broader world. We see the enthusiasm and newfound confidence of students that comes from this process as hopeful signs that difficult environmental problems are being tackled by students working as “citizen scientists”; this cannot help but improve both their well-being and the quality of the watershed communities in which they live.
Jennifer Miner (email@example.com) is a science/technology education teacher and graduate student at Acadia University School of Education in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; Leo Elshof (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor at Acadia University School of Education in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; Anna Redden (email@example.com) is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia and the director of the Acadia Center for Estuarine Research; John Terry (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president and founder of the Gulf of Maine Institute; 487 Clarks Mills Road, Dayton, ME 04005; www.gulfofmaineinstitute.org; www.civicventures.org.
Evensen, D., and C. Hmelo. 2000. Problem-based learning: A research perspective on learning interactions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI). 2003. GOMI. www.gulfofmaineinstitute.org.
Mortimer, E.F., and P. Scott. 2003. Meaning making in secondary science. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Ratcliffe, M., and M. Grace. 2003. Science education for citizenship teaching socio-scientific issues. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. 2004. An ocean blueprint for the 21st century.