Environmental Leadership Through Youth Education

Blog Title: Environmental Leadership Through Youth Education

March 22, 2021


How do we go about changing the way our youth are taught about water in a world of competing interests, teaching methods and attention spans?

In honour of World Water Day, we’re taking a look at a movement in Ontario that started more than 25 years ago in which tens of thousands of people have been involved; all equally passionate and capable about educating our young people about water.

In April 1993 I was part of a small group that headed down to Lincoln, Nebraska to check out an event called the Children’s Groundwater Festival being put on by the Groundwater Foundation. What we witnessed was spellbinding – a few thousand kids from grades 4 to 6 from across the state were bused to a university campus, where they would spend the day in over 50 different hands-on activity centres. The kids were excited, inquisitive and engaged for the whole day while being encouraged to explore, experiment, play and get wet. All while learning about the mysterious world of surface water and groundwater! We all looked at each other and said “we need to do this back home!”

Fast forward over 25 years, in 30 communities across Ontario where more than 800,000 children have experienced a similar multi-day event. These events are supported by all levels of government, as well as health units, university and colleges, businesses including aggregate producers, environmental consultants, and conservation authorities. Each week more than 5,000 children from grades 2 to 5 participate, along with approximately 750 parent volunteers and 500 high school students that are needed to staff and run the event.

The Leadership Dilemma

Over the years the leadership dilemma has always been: how can this volunteer led educational initiative not only survive, but become a mainstream method of education to increase the level of awareness for a new generation of water savvy kids across the province?

The reality is that it takes new community partners, to weather the storms of change so that each water festival delivers a program that is relevant, current and fun!

For aggregate producers, such as Holcim, participating as a partner in the Waterloo Wellington Children’s Groundwater Festival makes sense. Many of the participants and volunteers who attend are all consumers of their product and have a voice in the public debate concerning the approval and movement of aggregates. By clearly communicating the key messages surrounding the protection, management and preservation of our waters, myths get dispelled and education of key stakeholders happens.

For consultants like MTE, being involved in water festivals give the technical experts an opportunity to ensure that the correct facts and messages regarding our water resources are also being clearly communicated to all who attend, as the general understanding of scientific principles in the public is at about the grade 4-5 level.

Recipe for Successful Leadership through Education

Each water festival is constantly evolving and growing to meet the demands of ever-changing educational needs and expectations. This is especially true for the Waterloo Wellington Children’s Groundwater Festival, who are not only celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2021, but also marking the first time they will host the event virtually.

The way the events are hosted, however, will not change the idea behind the water festivals: educate children about the importance of our most precious resource, water and its life essential qualities.

The success of the Children’s Water Festivals across the province are based on numerous factors, including:

  • Each festival is designed to be fun and interactive, if students learn in a fun setting, the message will have a lasting effect.
  • Many people are becoming more concerned about the environment, especially water. They want to be more aware about water conservation and protection for future use, as these concepts can be discussed and managed right in the home.
  • Teachers appreciate the opportunity to have experts, and high school students teach their students about water using current techniques in a fun setting, with teaching at all activity centres linked to the Ontario Curriculum.
  • The festival takes a hands-on approach from which teachers and students all benefit.
  • Local leaders, such as MTE, can share their knowledge and resources in a practical way in the community in which they work, maybe even educating their own children and grandchildren.

Children playing with water

Beyond the Classroom

After more than 25 years, leadership through educating our youth beyond the classroom looks like this:

  • Students attend a water festival as an elementary student.
  • Some of the same students return to volunteer by instructing at an activity centre as a high school student.
  • Some of the same students attend university or college in the water, science, engineering or environmental field, or begin working directly in the construction industry.
  • Some of the same students return to volunteer at a local festival as a technical expert or professional.
  • Some of these professionals return to sit as a member of a local water festival steering committee.
  • Some of the companies where these professionals work become partners of water festivals.
  • All along the way, the local community and its stakeholders receive teaching, training, clear communication and messaging to become better informed and educated regarding the topic of water and environmental matters!

Now that’s full circle – just like water makes its way through the water cycle!

Looking Forward

We have all heard that it takes a village to raise a child, well it takes a changed, and engaged society to manage and protect our most precious resource, water. Wars are fought over it, people die without enough of it and yet in some places it is contaminated, overused and wasted.

My hope is that some of the more than 800,000 students that have been exposed to a water education initiative beyond the classroom will continue to contribute significantly to the changed society that is required to ensure that future generations will be blessed with the water supply that they have grown up with.

Author: Peter Gray

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