published March 20, 2013

First SCI - Great Lakes Meeting Highlights Best Practices in STEM-based Ecosystem Stewardship

Glenn Odenbrett, NCSCE

From March 14 – 16, over 60 faculty, students, and community partner representatives from four states gathered at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Botanical Garden for the first regional meeting of the newly-established SENCER Center for Innovation in the Great Lakes region. Also co-sponsoring the conference in addition to the host institutions were the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement, the Western Reserve Resource Conservation and Development Council, and the Dominion Foundation.

Early arrivers took advantage of site visits to the Cleveland branch of the Foundation Center of New York and the Watershed Stewardship Center at West Creek. Staff from the Foundation Center and the George Gund Foundation provided attendees with insights into how private foundations approach grant making, and ways to access the Center's databases from locations in their own communities. Visitors to the Watershed Stewardship Center, a partnership between the Cleveland Metroparks and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, learned how natural resource and education professionals, land protection specialists, volunteers, and visiting scientists will work together under the same roof to conduct scientific research and promote sustainable action to protect and preserve local watersheds.

The main conference began with a keynote address by SENCER Senior Scholar Barbara Tewksbury emphasizing the importance of course goals that include providing students with practice in the civic engagement skills they will need to apply their knowledge to new problems and challenges in the future. A panel of faculty, students, and community partners responded to the address with examples from their own experience. Attendees then created posters outlining how they would apply insights from the keynote address and panel to their own courses.

A highlight of the conference was the opportunity for teams from Buffalo, Cleveland and Gary to forge campus-community partnerships focused on converting abandoned urban lots to sustainable green spaces benefiting local residents, such as parks and community gardens. Faculty and students from Oberlin College demonstrated a "Bioregional Dashboard" project that informs community residents in real time how well the city is meeting goals for sustainable water and energy usage (click here). Case studies of their challenges and successes in partnering with the community to improve water quality in tributaries of Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie were presented by faculty from Saginaw Valley State University, Delta College and Case Western Reserve University. Preliminary outcomes of a near-peer mentoring program focused on creating storm water management curriculum materials for Northeast Ohio high schools were presented by students and faculty from Kent State University, the University of Akron, Hiram College, and a representative from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which plans to issue storm water management credits to high schools that adopt those materials approved by the District.

Also featured were two poster sessions: one for campus-community teams, and another for undergraduates and participants in the Cleveland-based Environmental Heroes program, which engages local high school students in environmental stewardship projects. For the benefit of K-12 and informal science educators in attendance, representatives from the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District presented water and land stewardship curricula targeted at school-aged youth, including Great Lakes In My World, Food Land and People, and Nutrients for Life.

At the closing session of the conference, college and high school students presented their vision of the Great Lakes ecosystem in the future, along with ways that current educators and environmental leaders could help them realize that vision.

Reflecting on the conference, SCI – Great Lakes co-director Joseph Koonce said,

"The conference reinforced the importance of reflecting on the benefits and challenges of creating and maintaining academic and community partnerships. We saw many examples of collaborations begun under the GLISTEN initiative maturing into sustainable partnerships and new partnerships arise that connect K-12 faculty and students, college and university faculty and students, community partners, and citizens. The vitality and promise of these emerging learning communities offer opportunities for the SCI Great Lakes to facilitate the joining of formal and informal science education in the pursuit of sustainable futures for the Great Lakes region."

More information on the activities of the Center is on the SENCER website here.