By Annemarie Reimer

For the past decade, the Avon Maitland District School Board has prioritized experiential learning in the teaching curriculum as a way to connect students to their natural environment.

The board’s experiential learning coordinators, Jodi Froud and Cheryl Peach, create meaningful and informative experiences for both students and teachers alike. Students require not only core competencies such as literacy and numeracy, they also require the skills, knowledge, and perspectives to engage as active, committed, and environmentally responsible citizens.

An art project highlighting the local watershed resulted in a student-made fence mural at Downie Central School in Perth South

One such program is the Great Lakes MicroPlastics Project. Last year a pilot project started with 3 schools and this year the following 9 schools participated: Howich Public School, Clinton Public School, Avon Public School, Upper Thames Elementary School, North Perth, Westfield Elementary School, Seaforth Public School, Listowel Eastdale Public School, Hullet Public School, and Downie Central Public School.

The teachers met with their community partners during a summer symposium for learning and planning. Once school commenced, the Great Lakes MicroPlastics Project kicked off with a presentation with Jennifer Pate, from Love Your Greats, who has a passion for cleaning up microplastics in the Great Lakes. She aimed to inspire understanding of the connections between how we live and the health of our lakes.

Then each teacher worked with their local conservation authority on topics for various experiential learning activities.

We attended a class trip to the Pinery where we did a beach clean up and students even found microbeads. For this trip, we packed paper bag lunches with no single-use plastics. ~ Sara Steckly-Gerber, Teacher

Students learned about the process of treating water through the waste water and water treatment plants in Goderich and  about the dune systems, species at risk, and microplastics at The Pinery.

“For the students to actually learn in their own back yard that they have places to take care of, has been very exciting and very important,” said Cheryl Peach.

Some schools participated in a workshop by Bluewater Recycling to learn about the process of recycling in their area. Others welcomed a visitor from their Conservation Authority to learn about runoff and water systems. Through the Yellow Fish Road program, other students educated their local communities about protecting their watershed from pollution  flowing down drains.

At Downie Central PS, teacher Sara Steckly-Gerber found that the Great Lakes Program was very engaging for her Grade 7 students. “The Great Lakes summer workshop provided many resources which linked to both the science and geography curriculum. Through mini-lessons and activities, we learned about the dangers of plastics, microbeads, microfibres” and also specific companies such as Norton Point, Patagonia, and MEC. Students made commercials about potential environmental changes to products and learned the value of “Reduce” as the first of the 3 environmental Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle.

“We attended a class trip to the Pinery where we did a beach clean up and students even found microbeads. For this trip, we packed paper bag lunches with no single-use plastics,” noted Steckly-Gerber. Students learned how hard it actually was to avoid granola bar wrappers and other convenient packaging.

Students at Downie Central Public School created awareness in the school community by adding environmental information to the daily announcements to highlight the harmful effects of plastics, how microplastics end up  in the food chains, simple strategies to reduce single-use plastics, and making t-shirt bags to replace single-use plastic bags.

Steckly-Gerber reported that the French teacher spent many recesses sewing t-shirt bags which students sold to raise money for their year-end class trip. Steckly-Gerber’s class continues to give each other tips about reducing and reusing.

Students Ryan Laukka (left) and Cole Humphrey with their handmade t-shirt bags. (Photo: Sara Steckly-Gerber, Downie Central School)

Programs like these used to be “extra-curricular” many years ago. Now learning about the stewardship of our planet is an integral part of education.

In addition to Steckly-Gerber’s class, the whole school community was involved in The Stream of Dreams project. The students learned about the runoff that flows from the school property to the Dunseith Drain to the Thames River, and later to Lake Erie. The Upper Thames Conservation Authority provided resources used in math classes. For example, some student groups calculated the area of an impervious built surface at the school that could not absorb rainfall, combined results and then calculated the volume from the yearly precipitation, finding the total runoff per year. Again Steckly-Gerber observed that students found the real-life application very engaging.

Art was another modality used as students in all grades painted fish to display on a fence mural to highlight the impact that pollution has on the local watershed. This Stream of Dreams project has been popular with many of the schools.

With students enthusiastically engaged in experiential learning, teachers are also inspired and supported by leaders at the board level. Programs like these used to be “extra-curricular” many years ago. Now  learning about the stewardship of our planet is an integral part of education.

For those who wonder if these programs make a lifelong impact, consider the words of Jessika Guy, entrepreneurial business owner of the Green Hair Spa in Stratford, who evaluates her business practices through an environmental lens, who gives discounts for clients who arrive on bicycles, who organizes popular Stratford Trashion Week events to highlight the effects of fashion on climate change, as she refers to her early influences:

“Before opening The Green Hair Spa in 2009, I loved being a hairstylist but I was very concerned about the negative impact the fashion industry was/is having on our planet. My love and respect for the Earth started very young and was solidified after my participation in C.E.L.P – Canadian Environmental Literacy Program at Norwell District Secondary School in 1999. As part of the program we helped elementary students understand the lifecycle. This was so rewarding because now they could begin to understand, we are all connected.”

And so we are.