The science of learning

Anya Zentmeyer

Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) set sail on its very first Making Lake Michigan Great tour in 1998. Now, in 2011, the tour is in its 14th year – part of the larger Water Resources Outreach Education Program at AWRI. The Great Lakes National Program Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funds the project.

“This year is a little different because I have three partners,” Vail said, welcoming Michigan State University’s Sea Grant Extension Program, Inland Seas Education Association, and BaySail on board.

Vail’s main project, the Coordinated Lake-Specific Onboard Education & Outreach Project, aims at delivering an onboard educational experience for the general public, public officials, educators and K-12 students in 33 strategic ports of call. For the 2011 tour, the points are at Milwaukee, Wis., Port Washington, Wis., White Lake, Mich., Waukegan, Ill. and Muskegon, Mich.

Docked at GVSU’s Lake Michigan Center in Muskegon, Mich., the W.G. Jackson spends the majority of the warmer months with organizations and schools on board, using the comparing and contrasting of sampling stations to help develop an understanding of aquatic ecology and the scientific method.

Science instructors spend time guiding participants in the use of instruments and the collection and analysis of data from lakes and rivers. Bottom sediments, dissolved oxygen, plankton, water color, conductivity, pH, turbidity and clarity and water temperature are all looked at on the research vessel, using creative job titles like “critter-catchers” to real the pint-sized participants in.

One Alto Elementary School fourth-grader described her time on the W.G. Jackson as “cooler than being in class.” The Alto Elementary fourth-graders board the W.G. Jackson every year as part of their field trip curriculum.

“I think it teaches them that our water is precious and to keep it safe and clean,” said Cindy Smith, a librarian from Alto Elementary School and a chaperone for the trip.

The W.G. Jackson is specifically designed as an outreach and education vessel, taking over 5,000 participants each year out on its educational cruises.

James Rahe, has been a deckhand for the W.G. Jackson for six years. Rahe does everything from maintenance to cleaning and doubles as one of the science instructors for the K-12 groups that come on board.

“99 percent of them are very good, and it’s fun working with them,” Rahe said.

Vail, who said she has a specific interest in Lake Michigan in part due to her status as co-chair of the EPA Lake Michigan forum, said the tour was also aimed at “social networking on the lake.” She said the vessel cruises are “a wonderful way” of figuring out what others are doing around the lake to protect and preserve and connecting with one and other that way.

“We wanted people to have some sense of the Lake Michigan Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP),” she said.

Vail added that she hopes the grants for the project “will never end.”

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