General Motors (GM) and its partner Earth Force brought hands-on water testing and observation to Maple Crest Middle School through the Kokomo facility and the GM GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network) program.
GREEN began in 1984 at the University of Michigan when Dr. William Stapp and his graduate students helped a local high school track the source of a hepatitis outbreak. Stapp and his associates discovered a sewage overflow in the Huron River, allowing for exposure to disease. Students who had been wind surfing on the river became ill.
From that original problem, Stapp created a problem-based curriculum and began to engage local partners. The GREEN program was born. When it was time for him to retire, he sold the program to Earth Force to sustain it and continue its growth.
In 1989 GM signed on after Earth Force approached the Big Three Automakers in search of corporate partnership. A handful of facilities in Michigan and Ohio signed on and began the program in their communities. As of 2014, all U.S. GM manufacturing communities and eight in Canada are part of the GM GREEN program.
Maple Crest STEM Middle School was approached by Earth Force last year to implement the GREEN curriculum into the school but held off until it was officially certified as STEM. The GREEN program works very well in STEM programs and can improve the curriculum for students.
“I was contacted by Jan Sneddon with Earth Force. She was looking for a partner and heard that we were doing a STEM curriculum here and transitioning to a STEM school. We set up several meetings with Earth Force and they brought in GM,” said Maple Crest Principal Dr. Katie Reckard. “The cool thing about their program is that it is real life.”
Science and engineering exploration teacher Aaron Hyman is the only teacher at Maple Crest currently working on this project and introduced the curriculum to his eighth-grade students, who take his class in a nine-week rotation.
“Each nine week group of students [will] get to have experience in this. Collectively as a grade, they can look back to see what they accomplished,” said Hyman.
A few weeks ago, Hyman’s class took a field trip to Highland Park. The students walked to the park from the school, taking notice of the litter and trash that had collected in the neighborhood they traversed.
Once they arrived at Highland Park, a series of stations were set up with mentors from GMHC to test and take measurements of the Kokomo Creek, a tributary of the Wildcat Creek, for pollutants that could be caused by environmental or human factors.
“We really wanted to test the Wildcat,” said Hyman. “We looked at Camp Tycony, but the water levels were high. And, the access wasn’t smooth. Kokomo Creek worked great at Highland Park.”
The students participated in hands-on chemical, biological, and physical tests led by the GM mentors and Sneddon who traveled to Kokomo from Indianapolis.
“They were set up in different groups when we got there. The kids would go to that group and do a different experiment with that mentor,” Reckard said.
Hyman witnessed some of his students blossoming in that learning environment, surprised that some of his more reserved students were some of the first to volunteer for sample collection.
“They were totally different kids when they’re out there,” he said. ”I look back at our pictures and see students who might not be the most focused or attentive in the classroom, but you don’t see a picture without them actively engaged. They were happily taking a pair of waders, [that] they may have never seen a pair in their life, but they were the first ones to grab a pair and get into the creek or the first one to take a ball of mud and sift through it with their fingers to look for organisms that live in the creek.”
Two of Hyman’s students, James Bufkin and Javorious David shed light on their varying hypotheses.
“We were checking to see how polluted it was,” Bufkin said. “I was expecting to find it more polluted because it’s around the park. With people not throwing their trash away at the trash cans, it is all over the park.”
“I wasn’t that surprised [with the results] because I didn’t think there was going to be that much pollution,” countered David.
“We got in the water and moved rocks around to collect some creatures that live in the creek,” he continued. “We found a whole bunch and put them in ice trays to figure out what they were. Then we released them.”
The idea of the hands-on experience was a newer concept to this discipline of learning at this age level.
“I think since it was hands on,” stated Bufkin, “we learned a little more than sitting in the classroom with a book. People can actually physically do something with it.”
Hyman held the testing phase a close secret. He aimed to introduce a community-wide issue to the students as they walked to the park and have them figure out ways to fix it once they discovered a problem.
“We cleaned up the neighborhood as we walked from school to Highland Park. [We talked a lot] about littering. Then they wanted to talk about the geese population and the waste they leave behind. We [eventually] found bacteria called coliform. We tested for that and we found it in the creek.” he said.
The students had 72 hours to wait until all of the results were finalized, so the students used technology to learn exactly what coliform was. They learned that the bacteria came from waste and Hyman spurred the connection that the students often sneaked off to the restroom to send a quick text message. Once the phone is in that environment, it can pick up coliform bacteria and transfer it to anything it touches.
Since the experiments, the students have flooded the classroom with photos of sewer drains across the city. Something they were barely noticing at first has turned into community environmental awareness, a key component of the Earth Force philosophy.
“Our mission is to engage young people as active citizens to improve the environment in their communities now and in the future,” said Sneddon. “The chemical analysis they did is just a snapshot of what is going on. The biological analysis gives a bigger picture because those organisms live there. They show the quality of the water over time.”
“We’ve got to keep our waterways clean and keep down the pollution in them,” Bufkin added.
“It’s a three-legged stool between the students, GM who provides the funding, and a local partner,” Sneddon continued. “We provide professional development to our partner, which we don’t have in Kokomo yet, but I think we’ll get there. With the GREEN program the starting framework is water. It allows for the GM mentors to get out and interact with the students.”
GM has provided opportunity for students across the United States to learn about the waterways in their communities and discover ways to clean and protect them as needed for the last 25 years. The GM employees serve as mentors working hand-in-hand with Earth Force and community partners to sustain the program for the next generation of students.
“We’re trying to promote being selfless instead of selfish,” stated Hyman. “At the end of the day, they’re going to be in this community and this will be their community. They can choose to take care of it today or save it tomorrow. It’s easier to take care of it today.”