Guest Post: A Coast-to-Coast Journey in Watershed Education

By Estelle Ruppert

Project WET Facilitator Estelle Ruppert with her family, near water (of course!)Project WET Facilitator Estelle Ruppert with her family, near water (of course!) Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, Project WET California Coordinator Brian Brown sent a note to his fellow Coordinators in Pennsylvania: “Thought you might want to see what your Pennsylvania facilitator has been doing in California. Despite wildfires and power outages, her Palmdale workshop made it into our Department of Water Resources top news links today!” That facilitator was Estelle Ruppert, and when we contacted her to find out more, we learned that Estelle has been training educators to use Project WET for nearly the entire time it’s been available! We asked her to share her story of why she has kept using Project WET all these years and in many different places.

We are drawn to water. Whether lake, river, stream or ocean, water creates memorable, inspiring and exciting education experiences! Indeed, water is the life blood of our planet. However, it is also abused, restricted, polluted and degraded. That means water education is vital educational content. Our survival depends on it.

I have spent my career teaching about water. Project WET has been my educators’ “bible” for most of that time. I was inspired to start educating people about water because of my childhood in the Great Lakes region, home to the largest freshwater bodies in the world. My summers were spent swimming in Lake Erie, which by the 1960s had become a cesspool of dead fish. Concerned, I began to study the lake as a university research student. Our work supported the clean water movement of the 1970s, which lead to improvement in Lake Erie following the implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Seeing how individual and collective action could positively impact water resources inspired me to launch a career focused on researching and teaching about water.

Estelle trained California teachers in Project WET at a workshop in Palmdale, which was covered by the Antelope Valley NewsEstelle trained California teachers in Project WET at a workshop in Palmdale, which was covered by the Antelope Valley News When I started out as a new classroom teacher, I integrated water themes throughout my curriculum. Experiences in a local stream provided motivation and inspiration to my students and offered a platform for achievement in all content areas. Teaching about water benefited the environment, the students and the community—a win all around. At that time, however, environmental education teaching resources were limited. We spent hours developing ideas for the activities.

Early in my career, I worked under National Audubon Society for both the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary in Oyster Bay (NY) and the Richardson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary near San Francisco. I took numerous college courses in stream ecology and water resources and began developing and enhancing school programs about the streams and bays. That allowed me to gain knowledge and experience with people who worked in water resources.   

The Palmdale Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provided expert guidance on water resources and water issues in California during Estelle's workshopThe Palmdale Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provided expert guidance on water resources and water issues in California during Estelle's workshop I then became a program specialist for Pennsylvania State Parks at Jacobsburg Education Center. Located near the eastern Pennsylvania city of Nazareth and the Delaware River, the Jacobsburg Education Center promoted and supported student stream investigations and professional development for teachers. Successful components of our initiative included the development of a consortium of teachers who met regularly and became great comrades. “Teachers sharing with teachers” on a regular basis was a successful formula for inspiration and motivation.

We culminated the year by inviting student teams to present their research at an annual three-day conference which was called the Delaware River Student Watershed Summit. We represented Pennsylvania for an NSF grant developed by Dr. William Stapp at the University of Michigan (considered the father of environmental education). Teams of teachers from around the country collaborated on watershed education initiatives.  We became part of our state park team to write a state curriculum called Watershed Education.  I also spearheaded a team in the development of Pennsylvania Land Choicesan educator’s guide to understanding community decision-making and our local government responsibilities to protect our watersheds.

When Project WET’s water education materials became available, we were delighted that the Curriculum and Activity Guide had dozens of exciting activities already laid out for us. We couldn’t wait to share it with our teachers. In fact, we felt so strongly about it that Pennsylvania State Parks joined forces with the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators to co-coordinate Project WET in the state. Since then, both organizations have promoted and shared Project WET with educators by conducting workshops and partnering with other state and regional initiatives, including the Chesapeake Bay Program and Stroud Water Research Center.

Sample WET on Wheels Itinerary, provided by Estelle RuppertAt our local park site, we hosted numerous Project WET workshops. One unique workshop we developed was a bus tour of the watershed specifically for teachers. We planned an itinerary to visit specific water resource sites and then conducted Project WET activities at stops throughout the watershed. We called it “WET on Wheels: A Watershed Tour with Project WET”. It was a big hit with teachers and community leaders.

During the past 20 years, I have utilized the Project WET Guide and WOW! The Wonders of Wetlands as an adjunct professor for the Master of Science in STEM Education program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. These two Project WET educator guides are the textbooks in use as we study the Delaware River and Estuary and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The resources provide a base for a state and region-wide initiative called “the Meaningful Watershed Education Experience” (known as MWEE). The unit culminates in conducting field research on horseshoe crabs during spawning season.

Superintendent Raul Maldonado came to see the Project WET workshop participants and meet EstelleSuperintendent Raul Maldonado came to see the Project WET workshop participants and meet Estelle This past year, my daughter earned her doctorate at the University of Southern California and took a position at the Palmdale School District. She is now an administrator at Desert Willow Magnet Academy, an environment, art and STEM-focused middle school. After visiting her school and speaking with the faculty and other administrators, I was invited to return to southern California and provide professional development for teachers on water education. I knew Project WET would be the best choice. To this day I meet teachers trained over 25 years ago who say that a Project WET workshop inspired them to a lifetime of commitment to teaching water education and stewardship. I get comments about how adaptable Project WET is, and that it is “awesome” or a “great resource.”

In planning the workshop, I reached out to the California Project WET Coordinator, Brian Brown, from the Water Education Foundation. He welcomed me with such generosity and kindness, reviewing my itinerary and providing Project WET Guides, maps and a wealth of other resources. His amazing support was instrumental to the success of the workshop. The Palmdale Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provided excellent discussions on water resources and water issues in California. The workshop was so successful that we are planning a workshop in the spring focusing on additional Project WET activities creating curriculum connections to green schools.

This photo of a Desert Willow sixth grade teacher doing The Incredible Journey was featured in the Antelope Valley articleThis photo of a Desert Willow sixth grade teacher doing The Incredible Journey was featured in the Antelope Valley article Environmental education provides an academic setting for project place-based, student driven, stewardship-focused environmental learning. It provides a cohesive theme that constructs skills and learning toward community goals. This type of education is more important than ever. All students and teachers, regardless of whether they are in California, Pennsylvania or anywhere else in the world, should be environmentally literate, embracing not just the science of water and the environment but also the history, social studies, engineering and art.

Teachers need support through quality professional development that will help their students address water resources, water issues, water shortages, stormwater and climate change—the challenges they will face as tomorrow’s water stewards. For more than 30 years, Project WET has given me tools to help educators teach their students to meet those challenges. And I have been most fortunate in earning numerous awards through my work with watershed education both regionally and nationally.  

Estelle Ruppert, water educator and Project WET facilitatorOutside of the classroom, students need to be connected to their community to understand the importance of local government and its role in protecting the environment. That understanding is the beginning of participation in the local government process and stewardship actions.

Environmental education should begin as a study of “place” and magnify to a global perspective. Project WET provides solid activities to do that, offering rich background information, relevant associations to standards and advanced progression to expand and enhance learning. I am grateful to Project WET for providing opportunities to connect with each other and with the water resources we love. 

Become a partner in the Project WET Network:  USA  INTERNATIONAL