Three summers ago, a thick blue-green scum spread across the surface of Lake Erie. The foul smelling slime was part of the largest toxic algae bloom recorded in history, caused (primarily) by phosphorus runoff from agricultural practices. If spring brings its typical abundance of rain this year, the amount of algae covering the lake will dramatically increase, say experts.
Grade 8 students at Dunnville Christian School are now well aware of Lake Erie’s algae problem. Their interest in the topic began with a visit to the Dunnville Water Treatment Plant (WTP) in February. The field trip was part of a PBL project designed by their teacher, Hannah VanderWier, called “Lake Erie in My Glass” and was meant to help them answer an important question: How do we protect Dunnville’s drinking water?
Shortly after their WTP visit, students were contacted by Dr. Kazemi, a member of the Dunnville Dream Program, and invited to give a presentation about Lake Erie’s toxic algae bloom for an audience of roughly 200 people, at an environmental awareness event.
The presentation could take many forms—a skit, a PowerPoint slide show, a lecture. However, if students did want to participate, they’d have to start and finish it within one week.
“I explained what was going on to the students and asked them if they were up for the challenge and they were!” says their teacher, Hannah VanderWier.
Agreeing to put some of their other studies on hold, students dove into the project—writing poems, making posters, taking pictures and building models that they would integrate into their PowerPoint slideshow. It was a time crunch, but going into the presentation, VanderWier sensed that things would run smoothly.
“I wasn’t really too nervous because I was really proud of the students” she says. “They all had to do their part in order for this to work. I knew how hard they worked on it and that they learned a lot about such a prevalent issue right in our very own town.”
Part of what made the experience meaningful for students was the audience, she says. “This was a real presentation with an authentic audience. The students have done plenty of PowerPoint presentations in class—and have informed their classmates about different things—but this was the real thing! They realized that they can make a difference by informing the public about this issue.”
Of course, in educating the public, students were also educating themselves.
“It was interesting that there is so much that can create algae blooms. Even the things we do every day,” says Meagan, a student in VanderWier’s class. “But there is a lot of things we can do to stop it, too. People can use phosphate free detergents, plant cattails in their ditches, and conserve water.”
While the future of Lake Erie’s water might look grim, many of VanderWier’s students agree that developing an awareness of the problem is a good place to start, and that you’re never too young to begin seeking solutions.
“In the future it’s going to be our problem, because we are the coming generation and we need to know how to fix it,” says Justin Day, a self described “techy” in Vanderwier’s class, who helped put the PowerPoint presentation together.
His classmate, Meagan, agrees. “I think it’s important for kids to know about this problem” she says, “because if we don’t do anything to stop it from happening now, it can become a huge problem later.”
When VanderWier looks at her students, she sees individuals who can make a difference with the choices that they make, and who “have been called by God to be stewards of this world” in their own local communities. “This isn’t an issue from a far away country” she says. “It’s right here, in Dunnville.”
If you have questions or comments for Hannah, you can connect with her through the eCurriculum’s PBL Discovery and Exploration group!