Watershed Alliance K-12 Program Expands to New York
Since 2002, Lake Champlain Sea Grant has partnered with University of Vermont (UVM) Extension to bring the Watershed Alliance education program to elementary, middle, and high school students in the Lake Champlain basin. Students receive hands-on watershed education in the classroom, at UVM's Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory, on Lake Champlain aboard the UVM research vessel Melosira, and in basin tributaries.
More than 15,000 students, teachers, and family members have participated in this free and low cost programming since its inception. Due to the program's location at UVM and staff limits, the majority of participants served have been Vermonters.
A long-term goal of Watershed Alliance is to reach K-12 students across the entire Lake Champlain watershed in both Vermont and New York, using the established Vermont-based program as a model for other universities. The establishment of a New York Watershed Alliance program at the State University of New York (SUNY) Plattsburgh required additional funding and staff. After achieving institute status in 2018, Lake Champlain Sea Grant received a significant base funding increase from the National Sea Grant Office, and we were poised to reach more students from previously underserved regions.
This increase in funding paired with support from the Lake Champlain Basin Program allowed us to establish a new branch of Watershed Alliance based out of the Lake Champlain Research Institute at SUNY Plattsburgh. We were able to reach more than 450 students from New York during the inaugural expansion year in 2019.
During our first winter, we co-hosted a watershed science fair with CFES Brilliant Pathways of Essex, New York. Sixty-five students from Keeseville Elementary, Boquet Valley Middle School, Crown Point Middle School, Beekmantown Middle School, and Willsboro Middle School attended with their teachers. Students participated at interactive stations where they engaged in topics such as: benthic macroinvertebrate identification, cultural and natural history of the basin, water quality, and best management practices.
At the fair, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) station was a participant favorite. Students learned about the capabilities of ROVs and had the opportunity to drive “Gary the ROV" around in a small tank to discover model fish at various depths. This event garnered attention from local media, further amplifying our central purpose to increase awareness and knowledge of watershed issues in the Lake Champlain basin.
More telling than numbers of participants is the impact of the program on students and teachers.
"We need to protect the future," noted sixth-grader Celton after attending the watershed science fair. "If we don't really start learning more about our environment and how to help it, it might just start to fall apart."
Watershed Alliance is most well known for its Stream Monitoring and Stewardship program in which participants get to put on waders and explore a stream near their school while assessing its physical, chemical, and biological health.
"This program is important in enhancing science education while fostering a connection to the natural world," remarked Erica Loher, a Boquet Valley Middle School teacher who would not otherwise have the resources to provide her students with these valuable experiences. "Watershed Alliance does an amazing job of covering New York State standards while making real world connections to the natural environment and inspiring students to see how they can make a difference.”
It is likely no surprise that some of our favorite moments so far in the journey to establish the Watershed Alliance in New York have taken place on Lake Champlain! For three days in the fall of 2019 the City of Plattsburgh Marina hosted the Melosira for a run of programming. Students and teachers joined our crew out on the water to practice the limnology techniques that scientists use to study lakes and gain an understanding of how our community action can influence lake health.
It seems students and teachers feel the same affinity for learning experiences on the lake as we do.
“Despite living so close to the lake, many of my students have never been on the lake," wrote Sonal Patel-Dame a teacher at Plattsburgh High School who offered her perspective on the Lake Champlain Live program. "Nate and the Melosira crew took my students on an amazing journey, using sophisticated sampling equipment. This was an incredible way to start off the school year, and I am able to reference that experience when talking about various topics throughout the year. Students now take ownership of their learning and realize that there is so much they can do to save the world, and it all starts in their backyard.”
Recently, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not been able to host our customary, intimate, in-person learning experiences. In spite of this, our newly established presence in New York allowed Watershed Alliance to adapt quickly to the new education landscape altered by COVID-19 and continue to serve students and teachers. We designed Watershed Explorer Challenge booklets to engage students in a self-paced exploration of the Lake Champlain basin and distributed more than 450 in New York.
The Watershed Explorer Challenge has been a great adaptation in the face of adversity and adds another layer to Lake Champlain Sea Grant's efforts to further our offering of Watershed Alliance programs to every student living in Lake Champlain basin. We are committed to growing the program and serving our community as best we can no matter the challenges our region faces moving forward.
Nate Trachte, the education specialist for Lake Champlain Sea Grant at SUNY Plattsburgh, runs Watershed Alliance programming on the New York side of the lake. The Lake Champlain Sea Grant education team includes Ashley Eaton, the watershed and lake education coordinator, and Caroline Blake, the watershed and lake education program assistant.