Groundswell: students and the community, solving problems together

Groundswell: students and the community, solving problems together


by Dottie Barnes

A sudden gathering of force is one description of a groundswell. Michael Posthumus, assistant director of the Center for Educational Partnerships in the College of Education, agreed and added that  simply put  its people coming together to do something.

Thats the essence of the Groundswell program at Grand Valley, said Posthumus, to bring together teachers and community members to share ideas, make connections and gain perspectives from a unique partnership. It helps teachers tap into local experts for professional development.

photos by Amanda Pitts Daniel Scheer, from CA Frost Environmental Science Academy, checks the pH balance of plants in the schools greenhouse.

Groundswell is a program of the College of Educations Center for Educational Partnerships, but involves people from the community, other universities and area businesses. Its focus is to help teachers and their students collaborate with organizations to study and address environmental issues and practice problem-solving and citizenship.

We want students to become stewards of their community, environment and watershed, while also learning about how to save and protect the Great Lakes, Posthumus said.

Some of the major players in Groundswell include Calvin and Aquinas colleges, Kent Intermediate School District, Celebration Cinema and Ada Township Parks; Grand Valley has housed and run the program for the past four years, and provides financial support, expertise and resources. It is funded through the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, Wege Foundation, Frey Foundation, Baldwin Foundation and individual donors. The program has also received in-kind support from more than 40 community partners and schools.

Posthumus said middle and high school teachers can apply for funds and support from Groundswell. Teachers in the program receive two years of professional development, attending classes and learning from community members. They also receive $1,000 in funding for a specific project  one that their students help select and implement.

Currently teachers from 14 area middle and high schools are receiving help from Groundswell with environmental service-learning projects. Grand Valley students in the College of Education assist or teach on field days, when K-12 students are working outside the classroom. Grand Valley students connect with these classrooms through their student-teacher placements, learning under the mentorship of Groundswell teachers.

CA Frost Environmental Science Academy


Students at CA Frost Environmental Science Academy in Grand Rapids are working on several projects through Groundswell, including starting a composting program, installing bat houses, growing plants in a greenhouse, and marking a walking trail on school grounds.

Middle school science teachers Mary Lewandoski and Shelly Welsh participated in professional development through Groundswell and started working with their sixth- and eighth-grade students on the projects last year. Environmental lab teacher Greg Petersen also works with the students on activities in the E-lab.

Yamari Vinson, an eighth-grade student from CA Frost Environmental Science Academy, brings leftover food from the cafeteria to the composting bin.

Being a part of Groundswell ignited us to get going with projects we knew were important and would teach our students how to take ownership of identifying and solving environmental problems, said Lewandoski. The kids just love it and the professional development instruction gave me assurance that I was headed in the right direction.

The school property is next to Blandford Nature Center. Students are in the process of marking a mile-long trail that encompasses the school and a portion of the nature center.

Students are researching the type of native plants, cattails and animals found in the area and then will make informational signs to post along the trail, said Lewandoski. They are also making directional signs to mark the trail and are even developing directions for trail walkers on how to measure their pace.

Students also discovered some of the trails at the center were eroding because of water runoff and built water bars to preserve the landscape and recreation area.

On most days students test the pH level of plants growing in the greenhouse. They are learning about hydroponics, a method of growing plants using nutrient solutions in water, without soil. The plants are then used in the school garden or sold for donation.

Sparta High School

The cross country course at Sparta High School, once overrun by invasive species and a dumping ground for garbage, is now clean and safer after a dramatic makeover.

Kerry McKinleys 10th grade biology class spent the entire 2010-2011 academic year on a Groundswell project to cleanup the land around the course, which is owned by Tesa Tape, a manufacturer of self-adhesive tape. The students found old tires, dead brush, dead trees, trash and even old cement blocks all along the trail. Nash Creek winds through the property and dead trees were blocking good water flow.

The students came up with a restoration plan to remove debris and garbage but they knew they couldnt do it all alone, said McKinley. They reached out to officials from Tesa Tape and they were happy to help with funding and debris removal.

Students picked up several bags of trash and then marked heavier trees and brush with orange paint for removal. Tesa Tape handled the removal of tree stumps, cutting them into free fire wood for the community. They also turned dead trees into wood chips that were spread along pathways on the cross country trail.

It was a great partnership with Groundswell and Tesa Tape, said McKinley. The students were given the freedom to come up with a plan and the community supported it. Tesa Tape helped bring in rocks and also put up a white picket fence along a sloping area of the course to make it safer.

McKinley said her biology students from last year and this year are continuing to monitor the project, about 200 students have been involved so far. Students are analyzing the human impact on Nash Creek, studying invasive and non-native species, and continuing to work on erosion prevention.

Students found multiple concerns, including illegal dumping and underbrush impediments. Advanced biology students specifically looked at water quality of the creek, and biology students identified and repaired blockages, said McKinley. Officials from Tesa Tape helped with the cleanup of the creek and now water is able to flow better. We are also seeing native species return and a lot of new species. Students will identify and catalog the species
this spring.

McKinley said students took pictures and video, wrote brochures, gave a presentation to the Sparta Rotary and carefully documented the transformation. She said advanced biology students will continue to test Nash Creek to monitor the health of the stream.

Future focus

The success of Groundswell has coordinators looking at the triple bottom line of sustainability that encompasses social, economic and environmental factors.

They are exploring ways to help schools use environmental education at the district level, focusing on sustainability. Costly environmental issues facing a district would be identified and then plans would be created to teach about and solve those issues.

Next year, Groundswell will begin a pilot project with support from Grand Rapids Public Schools and Forest Hills Public Schools. The project will involve students, teachers, administrators and the community.

Grand Rapids is recognized as one of the most environmentally conscious cities, said Posthumus. Leaders are focused on it so we need our students to know how to address real issues in their lives and think with a sustainable mind and create solutions. They need to know they can tackle world issues from Grand Rapids. They can do the work here, they dont need to leave to solve real problems.

Colleen Bourque, project coordinator for Groundswell, said their goal is to integrate environmental science concepts and sustainable learning into day-to-day curriculum.

When students start thinking with sustainability in mind, they can have conversations about real issues and begin to solve social and environmental problems, she said. Also, exposure to career paths is very important.

Bourque said the key is to utilize the strength of the community to provide the best experiences for students.

Grand Valley plays a large role, but Groundswell is a community partnership, she said. The program would be nothing without strong community ties. These partners provide the expertise and guidance to help young people be part of a groundswell for community change.

Groundswell projects

  • Forest Hills Eastern Middle School: Investigating campuswide storm water runoff and instituting landscaping practices to lessen river contamination.
  • New Branches School:  Building a greenhouse to grow plants and study how fertilizers, pesticides and other substances for gardening affect both the plants and the water runoff from the gardens.
  • East Rockford Middle School: Creating a buildingwide recycling program.
  • Lowell High School: Exploring water and soil issues due to food production and population growth.
  • City Middle School and the Sixth Grade Center for Economicology: Learning about runoff and the effects it has on the Grand River. Mapping nutrient runoff from the Huff Park neighborhood and educating residents about nutrient overload in the wetlands.
  • The Potter’s House School: Investigating the degree of pollution and flooding in Plaster Creek while looking for appropriate and beneficial local responses to help the creek.

Page last modified June 3, 2014