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From Left to Right: Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 Administrator and Great Lakes National Program Manager, and Mary Whitmore, Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative coordinator

As teachers planted native plants along the banks of Kreiser Pond in Grand Rapids, a retention pond that runs into the Grand River and Lake Michigan, local and federal officials gathered in late July to announce two grants that will continue to make similar projects possible.

The grants, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Great Lakes Fishery Trust (GLFT) and Calvin College, total more than $200,000 for watershed work and place‐​based education that will give students and teachers field experience while helping to restore the environment.

The largest, a two‐​year, $150,000 grant, will support the work of the GLFT’s Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI) and its nine regional hubs, offering programs in service areas across the state. The GLSI was the top‐​rated applicant in the region for the EPA’s Environmental Education Model Grants competition. The EPA also awarded a $60,000 urban waters grant to Calvin College for restoration work along two Grand River tributaries: the Rogue River and Plaster Creek. The grant will fund collaborative processes to design green infrastructure and to train high school students to install and maintain green infrastructure projects.

“We’re tickled, thrilled, and very pleased to receive the award from the EPA,” says Mary Whitmore, GLSI coordinator, at the press conference. “We know the GLSI is working when we see classes of students out in the community working on stewardship projects. The stewardship initiative is helping young people understand they can make a difference in their community.”

Since 2007, the GLFT has committed $10.9 million for place‐​based education and involved more than 55,000 students and 900 teachers in meaningful stewardship experiences in urban, suburban, and rural communities; empowering students and educators to work with community partners; and to become conservationists and good environmental stewards.

The EPA grant will help the GLSI continue training for teachers and field projects for students, which allow teachers to take their classrooms outdoors to learn about local environmental issues, according to Whitmore. The program enables communities and schools to work together to involve young people in meaningful field explorations and studies that lead to powerful learning and benefit communities and the environment, she adds. Programs also provide hands‐​on, collaborative experiences in science, math, engineering, art, history, and other subjects.

The GLSI’s EPA‐​funded effort, Place‐​based Models for Stewardship Education in K‑12, will document successful stewardship education projects spanning the rural, suburban, and urban contexts at the elementary and secondary levels, Whitmore says. Teams of teachers, their students, and community partners will demonstrate the potential outcomes of the GLSI’s three core strategies: place‐​based environmental education, sustained professional development for educators, and school‐​community partnerships.

“We shouldn’t keep this to ourselves — we have the potential to be a model for other places,” Whitmore says. “This grant will help fund some exemplary placed‐​based projects in our hubs. We want to build nine or ten case studies that really give people an idea of what solutions place‐​based education can bring to the table when it comes to unique issues in their local communities, and how to make the practice work for them.”

In the spirt of sharing the benefits of place‐​based education, the GLSI holds an annual conference to bolster stewardship in the Great Lakes region and its network of communities. This year’s Place‐​based Education Conference runs from November 6 – 8 in Grand Rapids, Michigan and registration is open to the public.

Through their efforts, the GLSI staff will produce resources and information to advance the work of its network and inform the broader field, including a list of quality principles for rigorous place‐​based education and a white paper on the values and outcomes of place‐​based education in urban, suburban, and rural contexts.

“It looks different in each place,” Whitmore says. “There are different stewardship needs in urban, suburban, and rural settings. It’s all community‐​specific. We let local people decide and work on local stewardship issues.”

The GLSI beat out more than 40 applicants based on its terrific track record of teaching teachers and involving students in experiential learning opportunities, says Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 Administrator and Great Lakes National Program Manager.

“What we’re seeing today is a wonderful example of what they do,” Hedman says. “They can take this back in the fall and reach a whole new crop of students. They put together a really terrific proposal to get people out in multiple waterways to learn about environmental stewardship and provide opportunities for teachers to take things back to the classroom.”

Kreiser Pond provided a perfect backdrop for Thursday’s announcement because both grantees — the GLSI and Calvin College — were working together in the field at the same time and place. The teachers were taking part in a summer institute offered by Groundswell at Grand Valley State University, the GLSI’s hub serving Kent County, while staff of Calvin College and its Green Team students spent the afternoon removing invasive plants and planting native species.

Kreiser Pond was built 25 years ago to solve chronic flooding problems down the Grand River. When non‐​native plants take over, they do not absorb enough water and it creates flooding. Planting green infrastructure helps trap rainwater where it falls, reducing urban runoff, erosion, and contamination of rivers and the Great Lakes.

“This is the type of project a teacher might choose to do with kids: pulling invasive plants or learning about water quality,” says Hedman. “They are building their content knowledge and confidence.”

The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative is a program of the Great Lakes Fishery Trust. Both are managed by Public Sector Consultants under its implementation practice.

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