Encouraging Future River Champions
Written by: C. Lacombe
Students become stewards while out in the wild and water aided by the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) Field Study Program operated in affiliation with Alberta Environment & Parks, Kananaskis Region.
Environmental Education Coordinator at Parks, Vicki Perkins, implements the program that boasts taking over 11,000 students on a journey of discovery along the Elbow River in the last decade. Over 1,400 volunteers came along on over 438 program days.
“I can’t think of any other program we offer that is so obvious to kids about how their actions can collectively protect a resource that is essential for all life,” says Perkins.
Here's why students get engrossed by kick box samples.
ERWP Chair, Diane Coleman adds, “The ERWP considers this our flagship program. We are very proud of the way it contributes to environmental education in our watershed.”
On a typical field day, 35–70 students from Calgary and outlying areas come into the Elbow Valley to study the watershed.
“We work with the idea that the river is an expression of the landscape,” explains Perkins
They travel by bus to locations where they test the water for various water quality parameters and examine local land uses that may affect water. At Elbow Falls, the program introduces students to the Elbow watershed, how to test the water and why water quality testing is important. As they travel downstream toward Calgary, the program leaders encourage them to notice different land uses – oil and gas, Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreation at McLean Creek, forestry, agriculture and fishing.
By the time they get to Redwood Meadows, residential development and golfing are parts of the landscape when they stop and test the water in the creek.
This ends the journey for Grade 8 students, but Grades 9 and 11 students continue to a location close to Elbow Springs Golf Course on Hwy 8. The spot is unique because it is right where the Elbow River enters the City of Calgary.
“Everything is magnified – more golfing, more agriculture and more municipal development,” says Perkins.
It’s a day out in the field doing hands-on testing and participating in discussions about water quality. “It’s always eye-opening to look at what they learn. Some things are intended and some things are not, but equally great.”
“Students leave with various concepts that loomed large for them such as that we can use less water; that it’s possible to protect bull trout; that soap can affect the chemical properties of water; that quading can impact water quality; that, even living in Calgary, their water source is high in the watershed. The program also emphasizes that Elbow River headwaters begin at Rae Glacier in Elbow Sheep Wildland Provincial Park and flow through Elbow Lake in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park,” adds Perkins.
Perkins reiterates that the students love the experience of being outside and completing hands-on learning with friends. Monique Dietrich, then ERWP Watershed Coordinator envisioned the Field Study Program around 2005. ERWP collaborated with teacher Jennifer Janzen and Environmental Education Coordinator Andrea Barnes at Alberta Parks to build a program in line with Alberta curriculum requirements.
In Grade 8, students learn about fresh water ecosystems and how human society impacts water; in Grade 9, there is a focus on environmental chemistry that speaks to understanding why we look for certain things in water testing and invertebrates; in Grade 11, they have to understand ecosystem biodiversity and how and why it changes.
“It really comes to life for them,” Perkins enthuses. She added that as the Alberta curriculum undergoes its current revamp, this program fits superbly with the goals of fostering critical thinking, problem solving skills and a focus on competencies such as problem-based learning and inquiry.
“It’s a great marriage for curriculum. It’s a great marriage for actual hands-on science. It’s authentic learning where kids learn about something that directly impacts them,” she says.
Perkins also expressed delight that last spring the Tsuu T’ina Nation Grade 8 students took the program. Students from the Stoney and Morley Nations came in the past and Perkins says she finds it is mutually educational when she gets to work with diverse perspectives. This includes delivering the program to students with special needs and students in courses outside of what the program was originally developed to serve.
For instance, teacher Natalie McLeod brought her students out and praised the program. “This was an amazing opportunity for Science 14 students. They did real science in a non-threatening way. The activity on the bridge at McLean Creek was amazing. These students rarely form or share an opinion and it was great to see them take a stand and defend it.”
Also, for the first time this fall, Dr. Cathy Ryan of University of Calgary will bring students to participate in the Fresh Water Field Study.
On that note, Perkins actively pursues partnerships to strengthen the program. She asked Dr. Ryan if her university students might come on a Grade 12 advanced science trip this fall. She also linked with the Whyte Museum in Banff around its water program.
Another group that benefits from this program is the interns that work with Alberta Parks, Environmental Education and join the trips. These young professionals often focus their careers on conservation and teaching.
“For some of them, it’s a very profound experience,” Perkins says.
Today, the ERWP and Alberta Parks, Kananaskis, share the expenses for the Field Study Program and its internships through fund-raising efforts and in-kind work. Perkins articulated her gratitude for how the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) developed the Field Study Program and how they dedicated over a decade to working with Alberta Parks. This relationship allowed this program to meet its goals and grow from there.
“We have maximized the amount of classes we can do in May/June and now we have the capacity to double the programs for September/October on the Elbow River.” She adds that a Bow River program is now open to all Grade 8 students in the Bow Valley.
“Programs offered in partnership are much more resilient to downturns in the economy. Partnerships ensure the integrity of the program and the ERWP partnership increases our capacity to deliver this program,” Perkins explains.
ERWP Chair Coleman restates the Partnership’s commitment, “We intend to continue working closely with Alberta Parks to ensure that we pass on our knowledge about the importance of water and watersheds to the next generation.”