GRAND RAPIDS — A new initiative funded with a $300,000 grant from the Wege Foundation wants to develop environmentally-conscious human beings at a young age.
The aim for the Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network, or GREEN, is to have every student in Grand Rapids Public Schools participate in an environmental experience, according to Clayton Pelon, associate director of the Grand Valley State University College of Education who serves as the lead on the grant.
The program will begin with students in pre-K through fifth grade and eventually grow to include students in all grade levels, including high school. Other member partners include the Blandford Nature Center, GVSU’s Groundswell initiative and the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW).
“We’ll be working with teachers and partners and the district to look at what parts of (their) curriculum they want to do outdoors,” Pelon said. “The whole point is trying to create a structure and pre-K through 12 curriculum that other schools can use. Wege is interested in testing the curriculum and ultimately distributing it to all schools throughout the United States.”
The distribution will be online with no paywall. A team of teachers and curriculum and community experts will spend the year putting together the initial programming. Lesson plans will be developed with teachers this summer, with testing set to begin next fall.
John Helmholdt, spokesperson for GRPS, said GREEN represents a “dynamic opportunity” for the school system to review the environmental education programs it currently offers, and assess what is currently being done. The process will culminate in GRPS provding a more seamless environmental education program for youth at all grade levels, he said.
‘ONE OF A KIND’
According to Helmholdt, research supports the idea that exposing students to field trips and hands-on learning opportunities aligned with certain standards is effective. He said the GREEN initiative is intentional because it goes beyond classroom learning and field trips.
Eileen Boekestein, environmental education coordinator at Grand Valley Metro Council, said her organization is working with GRPS to make sure it will get academic content as part of the initiative.
“Children do better all around in life when they have time spent in the outdoors,” she said. “We want kids to have the academics, but also the physical and emotional stability that comes with spending time outdoors. It’s good for the whole person to be outside.”
Depending on their grade level, students in GRPS already visit the Blandford Nature Center, Lake Michigan and the Grand River.
“GREEN is a one of a kind partnership between so many impactful organizations in Grand Rapids,” GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said in a statement. “Focusing their efforts on GRPS will reaffirm our commitment to being a sustainable district, ensuring every student has access to the same, and more, opportunities.”
Other than a school system in Colorado, Pelon said he is not aware of an effort like this happening anywhere else nationally. Discussions about the GREEN program began about two years ago, and stakeholders gathered for an organizational meeting on Jan. 16.
Of particular significance to Boekestein is immersing students in the environment. Her group is the parent organization for LGROW.
“One of the things that’s important to us is not only students having outdoor environmental education, but students connecting in ways that can make a real difference, especially as it relates to water quality and watershed issues,” Boekestein said. “The students are really able to engage in the work they’re doing, so we’re offering real-world context. They can talk about the Great Lakes and lower Grand River and what’s happening with water in their area.”
For people to be good stewards of the environment, they have to have some knowledge of it and experience with it, according to Pelon.
“We want all people to appreciate the environment and utilize it and to do that, they have to experience it,” he said. “A lot of students who grow up in an urban setting don’t have access. This is a chance to equalize the playing field, so it’s not just for students in specialty schools, but for all students.”
Boekestein said each student is different and it’s always interesting to her to see how children react to being outdoors or in the water, especially those who don’t normally spend a lot of time outside.
“You can tell that they’re not comfortable the first time they’re there,” she said. “But, gradually you can see their comfort level increasing. I remember one girl who had never touched or caught a fish and by the end of the week, she was one of the first to raise her hand while working with GVSU researchers. You see that joy and their eyes light up.
“That’s when you know you’ve built an emotional connection to the environment, which is where stewardship is coming from.”
Boekestein said her organization already benefits from the work students do to collect water quality data.
“When you’ve got students collecting data at the same site year after year, you start to see trends,” she said. “The need for education and outreach about water quality and quantity is enormous and youth are an effective way to help with that.”
As with the recycling movement that began many years ago with children in the classroom who took what they learned home to share with their parents, the GREEN program could have that same effect on society, organizers hope.
Even though the idea is to avoid guilting parents into doing environmentally conscious actions, the hope is that students will share what they learn with their families, which may influence how their families act, Boekestein said.
That allows the mission of the GREEN initiative to have a broader reach.
“Attitudes around environmental stewardship are (formed) at a young age,” Boekestein said. “When you really know and understand the issues in your own community, you feel connected. We believe in taking these big environmental issues and making them local. Our students will understand how to have a more sustainable involvement than they have now.”
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