Sustainability Fall 2017

For the love of water

Passion drives impactful hands-on learning experiences

by Nate Hoekstra
photos by Elizabeth Lienau

From the time she was a small child, Janet Vail remembers feeling a connection to water. She spent summers on the shores of Lake Michigan at a family cottage, and has been in love with the Great Lakes ever since.

Now, that love of water is a driving passion for her work in education and outreach at the Annis Water Resources Institute, where she directs programs that aim to teach K-12 students and teachers about aquatic science, ecology, conservation and stewardship.

Vail, an acclaimed educator who has earned awards from state and national groups, has been involved with the education and outreach program at AWRI since 1990, a few years after AWRI was founded. The program started with Grand Valley students taking trips on the university’s research vessels to sample water quality and expanded as those students became teachers and suggested that their students would benefit from a similar experience.

In the nearly 30 years since then, Vail said most of the 170,000 program participants are from schools around Michigan and the region. They have taken part in a learning experience that changes aquatic science from a textbook concept to a hands-on opportunity.

“Most of those students take trips that are nearly three hours long; we collect water samples and perform lab work to help explain some of the basic concepts of water research,” Vail said. “It’s a good way to introduce students to what scientists do at AWRI. Even though it’s much more simple, the concepts and principles we’re interested in are the same.”

Vail said one of the most important parts of the program is to interest students enough to get them thinking about pursuing educational and career possibilities in science-based fields.

“It’s wonderful to see their eyes get wide when they look into a microscope, or to watch them pick animals from a sediment sample,” Vail said. “It’s often an ‘a-ha’ experience for them. They might not always remember the specifics of the science right away, but they sure do remember being out there on the lake.”

Vail said that the hands-on experiences in the boats and in the dedicated classroom at AWRI help give students a unique experience, but that teachers are usually the biggest beneficiaries. Many teachers participate as part of professional development programs, and not all of the teachers who participate are science teachers.

Jeff Fodrocy is a middle and high school teacher for students in the Muskegon County Juvenile Transition Center; he said his recent experience will help him teach social studies classes to his students.

Janet Vail

Janet Vail

“Between sampling stops they talked about the history of industry on Muskegon Lake and how it has impacted the water and how the lake is used today,” Fodrocy said. “I think using this as a way to talk about local geography and the importance of history on the physical area where we live is important.”

Vail said teachers use their experience on the boat throughout the year. “This experience helps them share in the compelling nature of the Great Lakes,” she said.

two people working on a boat

Vail also has served in leadership roles for groups that focus on lake stewardship, including as the co-chair of the U.S. EPA’s Lake Michigan Forum, which is a public forum for lake-wide management planning, and the Michigan coordinator for Project WET (Water Education for Teachers). She is also involved in Project Learning Tree, GLOBE, Population Connection and Earth Partnership for Schools.

Her love of the lakes also touches communities outside of West Michigan. Since 1998, the outreach program has taken the W.G. Jackson research vessel to almost three dozen ports of call across the Lake Michigan Basin, where people in other communities can experience the research trips as well.

“It’s so fascinating to be able to help people learn about and study Lake Michigan,” Vail said. “Some say it looks like a big bathtub, but in reality it’s such a rich environment to study. To have the ability to study at this amazing lakefront facility with an office that’s right on the water, how good is that?”

AWRI Director Alan Steinman said the outreach and education program that Vail oversees is critical to both AWRI and the university.

“Janet has given more than 170,000 students and others a chance to learn about local lakes and the Great Lakes, along with the different challenges and solutions they bring, and they bring back information to their families, their classrooms and their schools to broaden educational capacity,” Steinman said. “It’s helping build awareness and education about the water and the lakes, which are such a vital resource to our culture, economy and identity.”

Steinman said he’s proud to have an educator and researcher of Vail’s quality at AWRI, and said he continues to be amazed at the recognitions she receives for her work on the program, including the 2016 Informal Science Educator Award from the Michigan Science Teachers Association and an award for her outreach efforts from the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

people working on water experiment

“All of us who are in the education business realize that doing is often the best way to learn, and retention of information tends to be much higher,” Steinman said. “That hands-on experience that students get in this program is really transformational. Getting involved in the research makes them aware that there are professional opportunities available to them working with the water.”

AWRI vessel research video

Page last modified November 16, 2017