Learning About the Great Lakes

Apr 7, 2021

Partnership brings environmental education into local schools.

Cole Fisher knows firsthand that learning about science can be intimidating. She’s working to change that, making lessons more accessible and relatable to young people.

Fisher embraced science later in life. Her undergraduate studies focused on biology and biochemistry. Now she’s working on a Master of Environmental Education at UMD. Fisher chose this degree because she recognized a need to build understanding between scientists and the general public.

As part of a graduate assistantship, she serves as coordinator for the Partners in Education (PIE) program, which delivers environmental education to public school children. She relishes the role and opportunity to translate complex science concepts for kids.

“It’s the perfect example of how to make a difference, bringing science to people who don’t think they’re interested in it,” says Fisher. “The lessons are designed to be interactive—making science fun, interesting, and relevant.”

Partners in Education logo

Each semester, the PIE curriculum covers a different topic. All topics are related to the Great Lakes. A total of 120 UMD students have volunteered with the program since 2012, putting in 1100 volunteer hours to reach 13,000 students.

This successful collaborative program between UMD’s Center for Environmental Education, Minnesota Sea Grant, and the Great Lakes Aquarium (GLA) has been running for over a decade. UMD provides a coordinator from its MEEd program to recruit and train volunteers as well as a student volunteer pool to go out and teach lessons.

Sea Grant provides funding for the program as well as input into the program’s operations and lessons. “We assist with training and we work with the coordinator to make sure she has the things she needs,” says Marte Kitson, environmental literacy extension educator at Sea Grant. “Cole makes this work really easy, she’s done an outstanding job.”

Great Lakes Aquarium furnishes PIE’s curriculum kits. Danielle Tikalsky, the volunteer and community engagement coordinator at GLA, points out that the program’s success has a lot to do with its collaboration. “Each of the three partners brings in exactly what the program needs. The collaborative work is really fun,” she says.

Opportunity for wider outreach

In a typical year, the PIE program serves students at schools within about 30 minutes of UMD, as volunteers travel out to schools to teach lessons. But the pandemic quashed the usual plan of in-person teaching.

“We decided it was a great opportunity to try something new, something totally different,” says Tikalsky, noting that this involved a lot of brainstorming and planning to come up with a new lesson that could be virtually delivered in a way that was still engaging.

The PIE team and volunteers shifted gears to create digital materials and virtual programming last fall. It was an arduous process but a major benefit of the change is the chance to serve a wider geographical range of schools.

Thirty-three UMD undergraduate student volunteers are currently participating in the PIE program from a wide range of backgrounds, including environmental education, K-12 education, science, and the humanities. Volunteers were tasked with creating short videos to introduce and promote the lesson. By spring, they were trained and ready to teach via video conferencing.

Though the program typically services grade school classes, the virtual programming was made available to junior and senior high students this year. “We’re hoping to give teachers a bit of break during what has otherwise been a stressful year,” says Fisher.

Place-based education

The PIE program promotes Great Lakes literacy and also a connection to the Great Lakes environment. Lessons are purposefully place-based to make the experience more personalized and relevant for area kids. “This type of learning becomes a more complete experience if we can tie it into the local environment,” Fisher explains, adding that capturing the interest and enthusiasm of kids while they’re young can help build a lifelong appreciation for area lakes.

Limnologist winter vs. summer diagram

This year’s lesson is “Think Like a Limnologist.” It has beginner, intermediate and advanced versions to meet the needs of different audiences.

Kitson notes that the focus is on winter lake ecology, which is a unique lesson. “What happens in lakes in the wintertime?” she asks. “There’s a data gap. There’s not as much known about what happens in the winter once things freeze over.”

Developing literacy among participants in the program, from the kids to the teachers and student volunteers is part of the PIE vision, according to Kitson. Because understanding, valuing, and appreciating the Great Lakes translates into stewardship.

In addition, Fisher points out that participation in PIE is valuable in terms of professional development for UMD students. “Whether they want to pursue teaching or love science themselves, it’s good for them to understand how to make something they care about valuable to someone who doesn't naturally care about it. That’s a good skill to develop.”

Top photo of PIE staff and student volunteers was taken in 2020 before the pandemic.