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A Spark - by Jessi Kramer, Environmental Education Program Assistant

Posted by lindsaybarden | Oct 25, 2016

We're gamers; what do you expect? We hate nature. We hate math and science too."

My eyes widen and I glance over at them, not sure how to respond, my heart sinking as I try to mentally prepare myself for the hours ahead.

--

It's stream science day, a day with lots of math and science in a nature setting. Half an hour earlier, I had been driving to the Manistee River along sandy back roads winding through landscapes of autumn. I was chatting excitedly about the flaming maples streaming past the big white Au Sable van. Chatting with myself, that is. I peered curiously in the rearview at the handful of middle school students who had been assigned to me. Blank stares, and a less-than-courteous comment from the far back, were returned.

Having taught before, I don't expect every group to learn a lot or connect well with me or be enthusiastic about the day's activities. Some are that way, and those days are like mountaintop experiences that boost your morale for the next teaching day. However, no matter how hard you try or what methods you use, some groups remain apathetic.

This group was exceptionally difficult. Nothing I said seemed to be getting through to them, they appeared fearfully bored, and getting them to complete the activities was like pulling teeth.

--

I finally made it to the end of the day. I sat the kids down at a picnic table where they tapped their pencils impatiently and ignored most of my words. We finished calculating the stream discharge based on measurements the students had half-heartedly taken. I wondered what good I had done, if the day and my work mattered at all, if anything in their minds or hearts or imaginations had been touched, even slightly. I felt defeated.

I began, wearily, to wrap up the day with a discussion of groundwater and watersheds. I mentioned how hydraulic fluid had seeped into the groundwater in the Mancelona area and how the plume of contamination continues to spread, significantly impacting water quality and forcing people to rely on other sources of water. I told them how a similar event occurred in my college town and in many other places as well.

Something changed during those stories.

The students' eyes were fixed on me. For the first time that day. I had a captive audience. They were also completely silent - until one boy started subconsciously drumming his fingers on the table while contemplating what I was saying. The boy next to him told him quickly, "Be quiet. I want to hear this." I was amazed.

They barely moved a muscle at that picnic table at Goose Creek Campground - that picnic table where moments before they could hardly sit still. They looked up at me, waiting for more.

I asked them if they understood the importance of groundwater and the watershed concept, and how everything is connected. They nodded seriously, nearly in unison. Some had a reflective look in their eyes, like a new understanding had been reached.

It seems like what they needed was a real-life example - a story that illustrated how this "math and science and nature stuff" connected to them personally and to people they know. These students were from Mancelona and the surrounding areas, and this story resonated with them.

--

During this internship, I am continually reminded that effective environmental education is not about fact-stating or information-saturation. It's about creating a spark of inspiration - often in the form of stories and real-life connections - and adding to it the kindling of appropriate, enabling knowledge in hopes of building up a flame of personal action.

After hours of eye rolls and blank stares, I saw a hint of a spark in my students' eyes, and a day that I once thought a waste was redeemed.

Read more about the environmental education program in our Fall Stories from Across the Pond.