Groundswell takes learning outside for Kent County students

Taking a cue from Shakespeare's assertion that "all the world's a stage," the Groundswell hub approaches teaching and learning as though all the world's a classroom. Using place-based education, the initiative aims to inspire lifelong learning and environmental stewardship in Kent County students. Marla R. Miller finds out how students get their hands dirty and their brains engaged.
From a weekend camping trip to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park to study dune ecology, to planning and installing a rain garden at Blandford Nature Center, to creating water caches for geocachers to find, students at Grand Rapids' CA Frost Environmental Science Academy take learning outdoors seriously.

It’s called place-based education, and it’s taking place at schools across Kent County through Groundswell, one of nine regional hubs affiliated with the statewide Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. The GLSI is made possible with 10-year, $10.9 million commitment from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

Groundswell involves a coalition of community partners and creates opportunities for field work designed to increase student achievement and engagement. Groundswell’s goal is to inspire lifelong environmental stewardship among students in grades 6–12 in Kent County.

Launched in 2009 through a planning grant from the GLSI, Groundswell is housed at Grand Valley State University’s College of Education in partnership with its Center for Educational Partnerships and other community organizations. Locally, the hub was conceptualized by 29 individuals representing 23 organizations from higher education, K-12 schools, government, nonprofit, and business.

The hub continues to grow, involving 25 schools and 50 teachers this year and reaching about 5,000 students from urban, suburban and rural areas during the last five years, says Colleen Bourque, Groundswell’s project coordinator. It is adding a project coordinator for the Lower Grand River Education Initiative and projects focused on reducing pollution from runoff into the watershed and ultimately Lake Michigan.

“Our teachers are helping them understand how the rivers and streams are connected to the bigger lake system and how we can make a difference here,” Bourque says. “Students do things that are really hands-on. The Great Lakes are such a unique treasure to our planet; the value of fresh water is so unique and important. We help young people understand the plants and animals that depend on it, the people who depend on it.”

Collaborations between schools and communities provide students with the opportunity to tackle an environmental issue that makes a difference where they live. Activities take place throughout the year to complement larger service-learning projects, which are usually conceived in the fall and conducted in the spring. They also must connect to curriculum standards, involve one or more community partner and give students a voice in the planning and execution, Bourque says.

Projects range from planting native plants and managing invasive species to water quality testing and awareness campaigns on water conservation, along with educating people that storm water goes straight to the watershed, so it’s important to keep drains cleared out, and that fewer fertilizers on lawns can help improve water quality too, she says.

Some classes adopt a park or work in nearby creeks. Others may work on a community garden, at a nature center or make improvements on their school property.

“The context for what they need to learn can be in their actual community,” she says. “From calculating the volume of how much rain falls on the parking lot in one rain event, to what native species in the river might be affected by changes to dams in downtown, it can all connect to different subject areas, all in their own back yard, and it makes learning come alive for them.”

Mary Lewandoski, a lead Groundswell teacher at CA Frost, uses the Great Lakes Literacy Pamphlet as students’ year-long text.

She is an environmental lab teacher for grades 6-8 and this year’s theme is water on the move. Students will adopt catch basins around school property and the neighborhood and work to raise awareness in the community on where the water goes, along with creating buffers with native grasses and rain gardens to reduce runoff.

At CA Frost, there are main overarching topics under erosion that the students study all year, but they get to decide what projects to do and take ownership in the process, Lewandoski says.

“The thing that’s so exciting is kids love coming to this class,” she says. “They’re able to make choices. Our classroom is not four walls. I guide them and help direct them, but they have to be able to tell me what they are doing and why. That comes from them understanding what erosion is and why it’s an issue.”

As a regional hub, Groundswell seeks to build valuable social capital, civic engagement and support projects that address larger environmental issues, including protecting streams and rivers feeding Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

“We have this Pure Michigan campaign, but how do we teach kids about what makes it such a great place and how to protect it?” asks Mike Posthumus, who handles administrative duties for Groundswell as assistant director of the Center for Educational Partnerships at Grand Valley’s College of Education. “Groundswell is a program that attempts to do that. We’re working to create systemic change, to train teachers to do this as part of the curriculum they have to teach.”

Whether it’s recycling more, planting native plants in their own yards or real activism, the resulting hands-on learning experiences are designed to increase student interest in the environment and create lifelong stewards of the Great Lakes. Posthumus’ hope is that students will move into their adult life with an environmental ethic of stewardship and making environmentally conscious choices as consumers, citizens, and future teachers, community leaders, and policy makers.

“If we don’t give kids an opportunity to connect to the natural world and their community, then we can’t expect them to care for it in the long run,” Posthumus says.

“There’s a huge issue right now, an engagement crisis, we have the least engaged student population ever. The critical nature of place-based education gives students a reason to re-engage. Kids are thirsty for a challenge. It gives students, teachers, all involved an opportunity to connect to something important to them.”

All the GLSI hubs work in partnership with eligible nonprofits or learning institutions, which can accept grants on their behalf and oversee administrative and fiduciary responsibilities, says Mary Whitmore, coordinator of GLSI. Grand Valley’s College of Education serves as the fiscal agent for Groundswell and administers grant funding from GLSI’s parent organization, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust (GLFT). The hub also receives funding from the Wege Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the Baldwin Foundation and other sources.

As a GLSI hub, Groundswell provides mini-grants to schools, professional development for teachers and brings in needed experts and community partners to talk to classes or help with service-learning projects or present workshops. It organizes Dinner and Dialogue events for participating teachers, an annual Student Showcase and a summer institute for teachers, Bourque says.

“We are all about sustained professional development,” she says. “Once a month, there is an opportunity for teachers to come to a workshop. They cover tips and trips for bringing kids outside, what are ways kids can learn in their own school yard or in an urban, suburban or local park.”

It’s a chance for teachers from both public and private schools and rural, suburban and urban settings to come together and share ideas. Teachers learn valuable content, network with colleagues, and have planning time to develop stewardship proposals.

Lewandoski participated in a weeklong summer institute that had teachers out in retention ponds pulling invasive species, doing watershed activities and conducting stream studies they can share with students.

“The thing that’s great with the Groundswell program is not only is the funding, but the professional development you’re involved in,” Lewandoski says. “All the teachers you’re working with are doing more than necessary. It’s great being in a group of teachers who are motivated. It gives you that uplifting feeling like ‘Yeah, what you’re doing is important.’”

Lewandoski’s students participated in a variety of activities during 2013-14, including water quality testing twice a month, a “Finding the Rapids” field trip and a sixth-grade trip to the GVSU research vessel.

At Blandford Nature Center, CA Frost students worked with staff on erosion control to help prevent storm water from washing out the trails. They installed water bars, rocks and native bushes in the fall and completed the rain garden in May. They put markers on a wetland trail on school grounds and created water caches using GPS units and informational text to share with the community. They also developed 12 brochures, professionally printed and now available at the school and Blandford, which give information on Michigan environmental water issues such as fracking, invasive species from the Asian Carp to the Spiny Water Flea, acid rain and “Who owns the Great Lakes?”

“It’s exciting to see them do something for other people, being a trail guide and teaching something or getting them out there pulling weeds,” Lewandoski says. “All the choices they’re making are centered around caring for the earth and how to take care of where they’re living.”

This piece was made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Trust and Public Sector Consultants.

Marla R. Miller is a social activist, entrepreneur and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids. Learn more about her background and work at  

Photos by Adam Bird.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.