Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Teaching the River: South Louisiana Teachers Become Immersed in the Study of the Mississippi River With Help from UNO

The seventh- and eighth-grade students in Robin Rixner’s classroom at ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary in New Orleans seem to have an awareness that Louisiana’s coastline is washing away.

The hard part, Rixner said, is trying to help them understand why that matters—and how their actions might help preserve a healthy Mississippi River watershed for the future: “Just to get them to think about how they can be a part of the process of helping.”

That’s how Rixner found herself sitting in the back of a canoe in June, dipping a net in and out of a shallow marsh pond near Lake Saint Catherine, looking for invertebrates. She was one of 20 south Louisiana K-12 teachers taking advantage of a $90,800 grant awarded to the University of New Orleans to help train educators to become experts the Mississippi River watershed—an experience that involved getting muddy, mosquito-bitten and hot.

Dinah Maygarden, science education program director for UNO’s Pontchartrain Institute for Environmental Sciences, said that even though the river is a vital part of the nation’s economic, ecological, recreational and cultural heritage, most residents of the New Orleans area have a poor understanding of their connection to the river.

“Human beings are disconnected from their environment,” she said, “and getting people to learn about the world via their environment is a way to get them more connected.”

By partnering with the Center for Global Environmental Education and the Meraux Foundation, this river-focused teacher training program called the Mississippi River Delta Institute aims to bridge that gap, giving educators a richer understanding of the ecosystems that make up the Mississippi River delta, the systems at work that create land loss, and the challenges that lie in restoring the coast.

“We want teachers to understand how they can teach good stewardship,” she said.

Over three days, the group traveled by boat down the Mississippi River, spent time at the Arlene Meraux River Observation Center on the river banks in St. Bernard Parish, paddled along Chef Menteur Pass outside UNO’s Coastal Education Research Facility, stood in muddy marshes and visited an urban water management facility at the Maumus Center in Arabi.

Tammy Ozuna, a fifth-grade teacher from Arabi Elementary, participated in the program in 2015. That was before the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Maygarden the latest grant to help amplify the lessons from the field by awarding eligible participating teachers mini-grants they can use in their classrooms for river-related projects or educational field trips.

Ozuna came back this summer, she said, hoping to cement many of the things she learned the first time around. “It’s a really great experience,” Ozuna said, “being able to interact with the environment and do it in an academic way.”

Ozuna is one of the three south Louisiana teachers in program who will now take what they’ve learned and head to Minnesota July 24-31 for additional training from the Center for Global Environmental Education—the partner organization at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., that provided the model for the south Louisiana curriculum. In Minnesota, Ozuna and others will become immersed in learning about the upper Mississippi River, where the river is used less for industry trade and commerce and more for recreation and fun.

“Although intellectually I know the Mississippi changes significantly as it makes it way down to us, adding water from tributaries and pollution along the way, I have never experienced the river above Memphis,” she said. “I am anxious to do field tests and study it in this setting and have a new hands-on experience.” 

Maygarden said the hope is that the program will enable teachers like Ozuna to view the waterway as a larger, continual system—and to be able to translate that understanding to their students through practical inquiry-based instruction and activities.

In the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina, students in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, seemed to have an increased awareness of the relationship wetlands play in slowing down storm surge, said Maygarden, who often hosts students on field trips to the Coastal Education Research Facility.

But as the years have passed, that understanding appears to have waned, she said. “We want to help them understand the whys. Why do wetlands slow down storm surge? How does that work?”

The EPA grant will enable Maygarden to follow-up with teachers over the course of the school year, acting as a resource for their instructional needs. In addition, teachers who complete the activities and follow-up requirements of the training course are eligible for $800 grants that they can use for their classroom. Participating teachers were also able to take back to their schools many of the educational materials and equipment used during the program.

One favorite: A portable, plastic bug microscope that can be used to examine creatures found in the field.

Tess Clapp, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at ReNEW Dolores T. Aaron Academy in New Orleans, said her students weren’t able to take a science-related academic field trip the prior year due to rain.

But as she paddled a canoe through the thick marshes, pausing to examine and identify tiny shrimp, fish and insects, she said she feels such exposure is imperative to getting kids excited about the science at work every moment in their world.

“This is what we teach,” Clapp said. “It’s good to get the kids out in the field and do science.”