I have now had to the pleasure to lead the Minnesota River Basin's River Watch program for 1 year, and so I think it is time to release the Annual Report (see below).
It was an incredibly busy first year for me at the helm, and as such there is a lot of work detailed in the report. I feel so lucky to be apart of such an incredible program, empowering the next generation of scientists and stewards. While the report covers all of the programming, it relies on industry jargon and shorthand to communicate what the program and its participants achieved. What follows is my attempt to clarify the shorthand, and express the philosophical foundations for hands-on experiential place-based learning, that i witnessed play out across the last sampling season.
Hands-On Experiential Learning
No lesson is more impactful than the one we learn using our own two hands. This is where River Watch's philosophy of learning begins. By the time students participate in the River Watch program, they have spent years learning about water, chemistry, scientific observation, conservation, ecological dynamics etc. However, students are not typically familiar with the actual practices and equipment that professional scientists use to collect environmental data like water quality data. While there is some complexity to using this equipment correctly, students often just need the opportunity to get their hands on it and use it in the field to develop a competence with the sampling methods. It is so rewarding to see the students' confidence in their hands-on skills grow with each successive sampling session.
Using the equipment in its intended environment is an important part of the experience. In part, it helps demystify the image of "hard" science by demonstrating that with the right tools and a little know-how anyone can collect scientifically significant data. Fieldwork also provides a local context for the data. This not only grounds the data in a resources the student can experience first-hand, but also demonstrates the need for all people, professional and volunteer scientists alike, to be involved in the monitoring and care of their local resources. River Watch is guided by the idea that it takes all kinds of minds to collect meaningful data. My hope is that through the hands-on experience River Watch empowered as many young stewards to get involved in conservation as it did young scientists.
Every River Watch team has a unique sampling experience because they are working with their own local water resources. By visiting the same site across the seasons, students gain a more complete picture of the specific factors impacting their local watershed. With the specific understanding of their local waters, students can focus their learning on strategies that are tailored towards improving the issues in their local water source. This is the essence of place-based learning.
The more time students can spend studying and exploring with the water resource, the deeper their bond with it will become. Developing this bond is crucial to fostering stewardship, because stewardship is built on a sense of responsibility to both the resource and those in your community who rely on it. (In this instance) One's sense of responsibility grows from understanding how you and your communities actions impact the watershed. It also grows from knowing how you can mitigate your community's negative impacts on the watershed. Once the impacts and mitigation strategies are understood, the only step left to become a steward is action. The likelihood any one person will take action to improve their local waters is directly related to their bond with the water and its surroundings. River Watch provides an opportunity for students to delve into the nuance of their local waters, providing both time to bond with the place, and information on what actions can be taken to improve the place's health.
In the coming year River Watch will work even harder to provide students meaningful avenues to act for the betterment of their local waters, and hopefully help students connect with the local waters they rely on.