By Nate Drag:
As summer fades into fall, the Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education Foundation (BUOE) finished its final trips of its second season this past week. Serving 1,000 youth in shipboard and outreach programs – almost twice the amount of students it did in its inaugural season – the lessons learned by students and educators alike will live beyond the days spent in the wind and sun. And while the progress of the development around the Commercial Slip and Central Wharf may be questionable at best, the impact of the presence of hundreds of Buffalo children and young adults at the waterfront has been undeniable for everyone involved, especially BUOE. Executive Director Kate Mini. “Feedback from teachers and students alike has been overwhelmingly positive and I couldn’t be happier with the progress we have made in connecting youth with the water. We have reached our goals of increasing school programs and implementing outreach and classroom programming and I am looking forward to coming months and years of delivering high-quality water education to our region’s youth, who so clearly need it. So many of our students this summer told me that Lake Erie was made up of salt water; we have our work cut out for us!”
This summer, BUOE welcomed groups that had returned from last season as well as new schools, camps, and programs that were encountering shipboard experiential education for the first time. Amongst the most memorable trips of the summer were the voyages with the West Side’s Concerned Ecumenical Ministry youth programs. CEM brought several diverse groups of students of all ages and ethnicities, many of which are recent refugees whose families have settled in Buffalo. While connecting children to the water they have lived by for their entire lives is often a challenge enough, creating a sense of ecological place for the new international arrivals in Buffalo was an eye opening experience for all. The normal questions BUOE educators ask students about their experiences with crayfish in creeks, catching sunfish on lakes, or seeing zebra mussel shells on local beaches brought up global biological discussions you might be hard pressed to find at a college or university. As a student and researcher focused on the Great Lakes, my knowledge of the species and ecosystems of Thailand and Kenya was limited before spending the afternoon with the CEM groups. Hopefully, their knowledge of our local aquatic ecosystems has now been expanded as well.
BUOE students searching for plankton during a summer morning on the Spirit of Buffalo.
While the winter months will bring the Spirit of Buffalo away from the Commercial Slip for storage, BUOE will pilot classroom-based programming in a number of Buffalo City public schools, thanks to grants from a number of local sources. These programs include a comprehensive six-week series of interactive lessons in watershed education, pollution, resource management, fisheries and water-based careers and end with a culminating shipboard program in the spring. Expanding their water experience beyond a single visit, this program seeks to give youth a more in depth education on our local and global water resources, connects classroom learning to direct field experience and sustains BUOE’s visibility throughout the snowy months.
BUOE will also continue to explore and prepare for the summer of 2011. Ideas on the dock for next summer include multi-day camps for groups that will allow more in depth and detailed experiences that can be expanded far beyond our traditional three or five hour trips. Creating programs of this manner will allow students to take the hands on learning they’ve experienced on the ship and put it into practice. In the past two summers, students have been introduced how to read a nautical chart with parallel rulers, compasses, and navigational beacons. Next summer, these students will be able to take that knowledge and plot the actual course the Spirit of Buffalo follows. The potential to watch the transition of experiential learning into real world applicability for students will help BUOE educators like myself get through some of those long, cold winter days we’ll soon be enjoying.
Other new ideas for curriculum and programs will inevitably come from BUOE’s participation in this week’s North American Association of Environmental Education Annual Conference. This conference, being held in Buffalo, will bring together educators from not just the United States, but from across the entire continent. This amazing opportunity for our region will be able to showcase the burgeoning environment education projects occurring here in our section of the globally significant Great Lakes as well as provide those educators with insight from the tried and true methods of programs from across North America. In addition to programs like BUOE, that have a focus on children, the future of our communities, this conference will help Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities gain a better understanding on how to change ecological perceptions and increase the environmental literacy of our citizens and decision makers. If these goals can be achieved for children and adults alike, coupled with the federal funding for Great Lakes restoration projects and the attention coming to the combined sewer overflows, the water itself may be able to truly become the main focus of our waterfront.
For more details about trips with the Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education Foundation, please visit www.buoe.org or call (716) 796-8393.
Lead image: Students from the Concerned Ecumenical Ministry youth program checking out some native aquatic species with BUOE.