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A Deep Dive into USM's Freshwater Education

A Deep Dive into USM's Freshwater Education

When it comes to freshwater, Wisconsin has the market cornered. The state has 1.2 quadrillion gallons of freshwater, the country’s only School of Freshwater Sciences is located in Milwaukee, and 86 percent of Wisconsin’s borders are water. University School of Milwaukee curriculum planners recognized the rising tide several years ago, and made freshwater learning part of USM’s educational priorities in support of the School’s strategic plan.

Students stand on a bridge over the Milwaukee river.

Middle School students experienced the Milwaukee river in three settings: rural, suburban, and urban. Here, they walked along the river in downtown Milwaukee to see how it is used commercially.

The ways in which students learn about freshwater in each division are almost too numerous to list. Preprimary Program students track weather and precipitation, while Lower School students study invasive species in the Great Lakes and learn about biodiversity, rivers, and caves, to start. In Middle School, freshwater education encompasses more of a global reach, including studies of the Ganges in India, the Yangtze in China, and underground freshwater in Australia. In the Upper School, the Global Scholars made water their theme in 2016-2017. Their summer reading and visit from author Ben Rawlence centered on climate refugees in East Africa, and the annual Global Crisis Simulation examined the impacts of a water crisis in the region. Upper School History teacher and Director of Global Studies Henry Wend, and 8th Grade Science Teacher and Academic Dean Nicola De Torre, worked with a panel of local freshwater experts who presented at Middle School and Upper School assemblies. Upper School students also learn about freshwater in science classes including AP Environmental Science.

Student college trash along with banks of the Milwaukee river.

Middle School students participated in this year’s Annual Spring Cleanup hosted by the Milwaukee Riverkeeper organization. Since 2006, USM 5-grade students have removed 4,322 pounds of trash from the Milwaukee River.

In an effort to formalize its water education, USM established a freshwater committee in 2014, consisting of seven teachers from all three divisions. A major outcome of the committee’s work has been to bridge connections between USM and other organizations. USM has partnered with UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences on many projects, including inviting graduate students to give presentations and having a team of Middle School students compete in the Wisconsin MATE Regional ROV Competition hosted by the School of Freshwater Sciences. Hundreds of USM students have toured the Schiltz Audubon Nature Center, Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility, and Riveredge Nature Center. In addition, many have volunteered at the Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Annual Spring Cleanup event to remove trash and debris from the watersheds.

Ultimately, the freshwater curriculum at USM does much more than teach students the ins and outs of freshwater ecology. It connects students to hands-on learning opportunities that make the education more meaningful, personal, and exciting. “There is an on-going debate over who has access to the Great Lakes, from other states and even cities as close as Waukesha, Wisconsin, and we talk about that,” said De Torre. “We look at real-life issues that translate to real-life learning.”

In addition, the freshwater curriculum weaves through many different courses. “In English, students read articles about garbage and its impact on the waterways,” said Will Piper, 5th-grade social studies teacher. “In World Culture Geography, we study how a lack of proximity to freshwater impacts people in Africa, and how factory pollution in New Dehli can pollute the Ganges River hundreds of miles away.” The result is an education that is deeper and more impactful. “Students are able to use critical thinking skills to make really neat conclusions about water because of all of these integrated experiences.”

By the time they graduate from USM, students have a greater appreciation for the incredible resources we have in this state. “Most of the world does not have access to freshwater like we do, and it’s a resource that provides so much in terms of industry, geography, and tourism,” said Piper. “Students learn that as they grow throughout their time at USM. Which is good, because our graduates will be future leaders who will, no doubt, have to make decisions on freshwater issues both locally and globally.”

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