Educational Partnership Makes a Splash
by Sharon Moen
Sarah Towne teaches fourth-graders about Lake Superior as part of an increasingly popular free classroom program.
Reaching for a blue crayon an elementary student asks her friend, “How will you draw a puddle?” The girls, along with 20 classmates, are racing to complete an assignment: Draw a place where you might find water… fabulous H…2…O!
During a fast-paced hour, Sarah Towne, a graduate student in education at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), asks questions and parlays spirited comments from fourth graders at Stowe Elementary School in Duluth. Towne does so on behalf of the Great Lakes Aquarium, Minnesota Sea Grant, and UMD’s Department of Education for the Partners in Education (PIE) program.
As PIE coordinator, Towne not only splashes around in Lake Superior issues, but models the lessons and delivery of “Lake Superior and Beyond” to UMD undergraduates who will extend the curriculum to other classrooms in the region. Elementary teachers and the UMD undergrads have enthusiastically received the program. Since the program began in 2004, the number of classrooms served per year has jumped from 15 to 50, and the number of UMD undergraduates participating has grown from 5 to 9. Organizers estimate they’ve reached over 3,000 students and expect continued growth.
“Figure out how water gets from your picture to the picture made by a person sitting next to you,” prompts Towne, igniting 22 voices. After showing how 97 percent of the water in the world is salty and 10 percent of the surface freshwater lies in Lake Superior, Towne dons a bright orange raincoat and positions herself on an enormous canvas rendering of Lake Superior. Acting the part of rain, one student squirts her with a spray bottle while the class discusses watersheds, how water moves, and where it goes.
One place it goes is to the Atlantic Ocean. The class rolls back the Lake Superior canvas, revealing an equally sizable rendition of the Great Lakes system and ocean. This gives Towne the reference she needs for the next subject.
“Ohh, it’s so cute!” some youngsters gush as Towne shows a juvenile American eel photograph. A discussion of the ecology of this increasingly rare eel rounds out the hour. The students, eager participants in the suite of activities accompanying the lessons, help a puppet female eel swim from Lake Superior, through the Great Lakes, and to the Sargasso Sea, the natal waters for American eel. Meanwhile, Towne explains how a female eel’s color and body parts change as she makes on her way from fresh to saline water, growing from adolescence to sexual maturity. Male eels, the students learn, “hang out” near the brackish mouth of the St. Lawrence River waiting for females on their way out of the Great Lakes.
“Partners in Education links science literacy – a Sea Grant mission – with the aquarium’s educational goals, and University requirements for education majors,” said Doug Jensen, who serves on the Great Lakes Aquarium’s board of directors and coordinates Minnesota Sea Grant’s Aquatic Invasive Species Information Center.
Joy Kubarek-Sandor, last year’s PIE coordinator, found the children’s enthusiasm and learning capacity incredibly rewarding.
“Their letters of thanks indicated how much they learned and how much fun they had learning it,” Kubarek-Sandor said. “Some of the undergraduates had such a great experience that they continued visiting classrooms even though they fulfilled their academic requirements for volunteer teaching hours.”
Kubarek-Sandor, now an educational program coordinator for the Great Lakes Aquarium, said the PIE program hopes to continue its strong presence in area classrooms. For more information about this Free classroom opportunity contact the Great Lakes Aquarium at (218) 740-2007; email@example.com.