Climate Change Education Gathers Steam in Northern Wisconsin

Oct 2, 2015

Some educators in northern Wisconsin aren't letting the fact that climate change is a politically charged issue sway them from teaching about the subject.

Cathy Techtmann with UW-Extension is one of G-WOW's creators.
Credit S Bence

Cathy Techtmann is among them. The UW-Extension environmental outreach specialist decided it was time to rethink climate change education.

“The old model purely based on science were just not resonating with people,” Techtmann says. “A lot of people realize that there’s cultural component, not just a scientific piece but also a cultural piece that makes the issue come alive to people.”

Techtmann lives in a region rich with learning opportunities and resources - near the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore park and two Ojibwe tribes, the Bad River and Red Cliff.

Teacher Climate Change Training “Guides for Tomorrow”

UW-Extension partnered with those groups, along with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, US Forest Service and National Park Service to create the G-WOW program. G-WOW is short for Gikinoo'wizhiwe Onji Waaban, the Ojibwe word meaning “guiding for tomorrow.”

Exploring Stockton Island.
Credit S Bence

Each summer since 2012, approximately 25 educators from Wisconsin, and a few beyond its borders, stream in for four days of intensive hands-on education about climate change.

Neil Howk helped get the G-WOW ball rolling. He’s assistant chief of interpretation and education with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

“If people don’t know about something, they’re not going to care for it. Not only are we helping people to learn more about the Apostle Islands and the fact that they’re here, but they may not be here in this condition in perpetuity unless we take some action,” Howk says.

Neil Howk (center) at Julian Beach on Stockton Island.
Credit S Bence

Howk says sharing the magic of the 21 islands works best when you’re standing on one. G-WOW participants spend a day on Stockton Island. It is home to a range of ecosystems – from bog to savanna and pine forest.

 “The long term trend is for lower lake levels and bigger beaches. This is an example of what we’ll be dealing with over the next 10, 15 or 20 years if lake levels go up or down. It makes a difference, not only at our docks and our infrastructure, but also makes a big difference at our beaches; are they big, are they small, are they there at all,” Howk says.

Stephen Handler (far right) is climate change researcher with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science in Houghton, MI.
Credit S Bence

Nearby, in Bad River’s forest, a USDA researcher shows the educators how to identify which trees might succumb to an altered climate.

Stephen Handler leads them in tagging the most vulnerable. “It’s a real climate change scenario, down scaled for northern Wisconsin. Basically this is something like 8 or 9 degrees warmer by the end of the century, winters could be 10 to 12 degrees warmer. Drier summers, wetter the rest of the year, so it’s a more extreme difference between wet season and dry season,” Handler says.

Teachers leave the workshop inspired to incorporate what they've learned into their classrooms.

Science Class in Wausau Investigates Their Own Environment

Peter Schmidt, a sixth grade science teacher from Wausau, was so wowed by G-WOW, he came back a second summer as a mentor.

“This is going to be my 30th year of teaching and if I were to choose a single most important science topic, this is it. And it’s good to see something so important in a model like this that has that affect in the classroom and beyond. I’ll talk other people into it next summer,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt’s students spent a school year investigating their own environment, including conducting a comprehensive energy audit of their school. They presented their findings – the good and the bad at open houses and parent-teacher conferences.

Schmidt brought a group of his students to experience some of the G-WOW curriculum, including a day on Stockton Island.

“This was a culmination of their yearlong work of the geology, ecology and meteorology work that they did. This is where it all came together and they knew the things,” Schmidt says.

Combining Climate Change Education with Art in Ashland

One of Joni Chapman's 5th grader's goldfinch
Credit J Chapman

You can’t get closer to G-WOW than participant Joni Chapman. She teaches art at an elementary school in Ashland.

“The thing that hit me was how much information is out there that is just not factually correct about climate change. It’s something I think about, but hadn’t really put it together – how much inaccurate information is available for people until I started looking at what the actual facts are,” Chapman says.

But Chapman grappled with how she could convey that information to her students. She only spends one class period a week with each of her kindergarten through 5th graders, and they are young kids.

Chapman started with her 2nd, 4th and 5th graders and took on accessible topic – birds. “They all had the choice of writing a research paper. The second graders all did painting of their birds. They were also asked to come up with a board to put everything on and actually presented their findings of their research to their class. And they also learned the birdcall of that particular bird,” she says.

....and one of Chapman's 2nd grader's work.
Credit J Chapman

Kids who wished to, competed in an Audubon Society bird calling contest. Chapman is finding her artistic weaving of climate change curriculum works for young student.

“Elementary school kids don’t necessarily understand all of the details, but they understand that sometimes, change isn’t so great. And they are interested in knowing how our world operates. So incorporating preservation of the environment into the curriculum I think is vitally important, and that’s something I haven’t necessarily done before,” she says.

6th Graders Log Local Weather in Southwest Wisconsin

As a result of G-WOW, Tim Donovan took some of his students to the Apostle Islands.
Credit Tim Donovan

  Tim Donovan has taught sixth grade science in southwest Wisconsin for two decades. He says, before attending the institute, he wasn’t sure how to approach climate change.

Since then, he has had students log local weather - rainstorms, snowfalls, and when nearby lakes freeze.

“And I asked, do you think climate is changing or not? A lot weren’t so sure and I said, well that’s what we’re going to look at. They eventually decided it was changing, I think one student who still kind of held out and wasn’t sure,” Donovan says.

Donovan says he chose not to emphasize humans’ contribution to climate change.

“I didn’t want this to become too emotional from a sixth grade point of view,” Donovan says.

Honoring Hurley’s Mining Legacy, While Thinking About The Town’s Future

Amy Nosal hasn’t flinched. She works with high schoolers in Hurley, Wisconsin.

It remains deeply connected to its tradition of mining. Murals throughout town honor its mining and logging legacy.

“I wanted kids to think about the future of Hurley. In Hurley there’s a lot reflecting on the booming mining days, but how do we move forward? What is that future going to look like,” Nosal says.

So Nosal guided students in creating a new mural, along Hurley’s riverfront.

“ I think it’s a success that we could get a little conversation going, but I’m also not surprised that we didn’t have anyone gung-ho, jumping for change because this is a huge issue that we in our community are just beginning to grapple with,” Nosal says.

Before and after images of the mural high school students created in Hurley.
Credit A Nosal

G-WOW Workshop Attracting National Attention

G-WOW continues to bear fruit. It just hosted a two-day coastal climate camp for 136 6th through 8th graders from Marathon County.

And it’s being noticed outside Wisconsin. Cathy Techtmann shared the model earlier this year at the National Green Schools Conference and the North American Association for Environmental Education.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just added G-WOW to its U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit.

And yes, G-WOW 2016 is in the works.