Educating Teachers to Create “Ripples” at Colorado's Confluence Institute

Educators conducted water quality monitoring on their field tripEducators conducted water quality monitoring on their field trip For Seth Turner, the appeal of the Confluence Institute was immediate and obvious.

“Back in May, one of the teachers on my team shared an email describing the Confluence Institute, which included a chance to earn two credits while spending one of the four days canoeing down the St. Vrain River,” Seth, who teaches in a combined Pre-K through first grade classroom, recalled. “To top it all off, it was free!  Talk about magic words to a teacher: a free conference that offers two credits for the price of one, a canoe trip and the majority of the class time spent outdoors.”

Kathryn Parker, Project WET Coordinator, ColoradoKathryn has organized the Confluence Institute since 2011 The four-day, hands-on water education workshop for teachers in northeastern Colorado—organized by Colorado Project WET Coordinator Kathryn Parker of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District—began in 2010. Offering Project WET training, guest speakers, a field trip and a canoe expedition on the St. Vrain River, the Confluence Institute has helped more than 150 teachers better understand and teach about their own watershed. The institute is offered free of charge thanks to local partners and includes not only instruction but also educational materials such as the Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide 2.0.

Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide 2.0Participants received Guide 2.0 and other teaching resources Ginette Auton, an elementary school special education teacher, participated in this year’s workshop and said she was impressed by what the Institute provided to participants.

“The first day, I was very surprised by the resources we were provided with,” Ginette said. “We were given the amazing Project WET Curriculum and Activity Guide, access to the Project WET Portal and a wide variety of materials such as water and soil posters and agriculture newsletters to be used with our students.”

Project WET Coordinator Kathryn Parker explained that the Project WET Guide is a key element for the Institute because of the program’s dual purpose: to educate area teachers about their own watershed and give them tools and ready-made curriculum to teach their students.

“Guide 2.0 is perfect because it covers all content areas and all grades, is easily adaptable and gets kids active versus sitting through lectures,” Kathryn said.

A day-long canoe trip was the highlight of Day 2A day-long canoe trip was the highlight of Day 2 For Seth, the emphasis on the Project WET core belief of “water for all water users”—along with the experiences and viewpoints of his Confluence classmates—influenced his thinking about the best ways to teach about topics that can be sensitive, such as conflicts between water users.

“While I wouldn’t say that my core beliefs have changed after the institute, it was nice to hear the perspective of agriculture and cities that have strong claims to water in Colorado,” Seth noted. “Putting a face with differing viewpoints made it much more possible to understand that my beliefs must be balanced with those who both agree and disagree with me. This is a good thing to remember heading into a new school year with new classroom dynamics between the students and new parents whose perspectives I must understand if I am to have a positive relationship with them and their children.”

Participants had the chance to share their perspectives not only in the classroom but also on the water and land being studied. The second day of the Institute included a full-day canoe trip—24 participants in 12 canoes working together to learn and have fun at the same time. Seth saw parallels between the trip and the upcoming first days of school.

“Sharing an experience like this with strangers is so applicable to the start of another year,” he said. “It is absolutely vital that my children enjoy coming to school. Fun, shared activities that they have with a group of strangers in the first few weeks of the year will turn to friendships with those around them in just the first handful of weeks. I was also reminded that nothing brings this out like an outdoor activity that people share.”

Educators built community on the river while also conducting science activitiesEducators built community on the river while also conducting science activities Day three of the Institute saw participants again in the field, this time doing water quality monitoring, nature drawing and other hands-on science. Seth said that the experiences reminded him how critical it is to expose students—even the youngest learners, like those in his classes—to real science activities.

“I would never consider teaching my young students about art without giving them a chance to be artists, but every year I teach my students science without giving them a chance to be scientists,” Seth said. “Hands-on activities matter in much more than just art if learning is to be meaningful.”

Opportunities to engage students with science and the world around them are in fact the biggest effect that Project WET Coordinator Kathryn hears about from the Institute’s participants each year.

“On evaluations, the teachers always comment about how much they learned about water issues,” she explained. “They are truly excited to find a ready-made curriculum to teach these complex topics, and immediately start incorporating PW into their unit plans. They realize the value (and fun) of teaching through hands-on, physically active lessons and how much more impactful that type of teaching is.”

In Seth’s case, he noted that the flexibility of the lessons presented for teachers to use with their students was key for an early elementary educator.

“I have been to so many conferences during my time as a teacher that were interesting to me but which in practice were very challenging to integrate into the classroom dynamic with my students,” he said. “With its approach to hands-on, kinesthetic and traditional book and activity learning, this curriculum and Institute gave me a wealth of already-prepped lessons that will be easy to take back to my classroom and the knowledge to implement them effectively.”

For Ginette, the trip and the Institute as a whole reminded her of what needs to be done to keep our shared water resources clean—and has inspired her to take action in her own home to protect and conserve water.

“We have become such a society that never even considers how we use water, where it comes from or how what we do impacts it,” Ginette said. “I have spoken with my family about things we can start doing to make changes to our lives to have less of an impact on our watershed.”

Ginette added that she believes this desire to take positive action for water will extend to students and their families once she has the chance to bring more water education into her classroom.

“I have great hopes that this learning will be much like ripples on a pond: The more I learn and share, the more I can share, and the more others will learn and share. Slowly, as the ripples go out from each of us, the better things will be,” Ginette said.

Check out one of the many hands-on, movement-oriented activities at the Institute:

Water Education Activities at the Confluence Institute in Colorado from Project WET on Vimeo.

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