Collaborative Program in Northern Wisconsin Blends Science and Culture to Teach Climate Change

Oct 1, 2015

Climate change tends to make the news pretty regularly. Despite the coverage, many believe too little is being done to curb emissions and slow the global warming trend, others dismiss concerns with equal conviction.

A program in far northern Wisconsin along Lake Superior is trying to change minds through education.

Called G-WOW, the model not only integrates scientific climate change research, but a glimpse of how Lake Superior’s coastal environment, people, cultures and economies stand to be impacted by climate change.

The name of the four-day experiential teachers’ training has Ojibwe roots. Gikinoo'wizhiwe Onji Waaban, G-WOW for short, means “Guiding for Tomorrow.”

Neil Howk helped get the G-WOW ball rolling.

As assistant chief of interpretation and education with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Howk learned about the initial opportunity.

“Back in around 2010, 2011 the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was passed and so there was a chunk of money to do a lot of restoration around the Great Lakes region that included education , curriculum development , service projects on all kinds of coastal related projects. So we tied climate change into that,” Howk says.

Howk got to work with other Lake Superior advocates and stakeholders, including the Bad River and Red Cliff Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission and UW-Extension.

They created an interactive exhibit that came to life at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors.

Then, Howk learned another pot of money might expand the group’s impact.

“We learned that the National Park Foundation had a grant opportunity starting in 2012. It was to bring teachers together in a workshop in order to incorporate climate change into their curriculum and to encourage their students to do service learning projects related to climate change,” Howk says.

There’s was one of eight parks selected to participate.

Howk believes their application rose to the top because local stakeholders were already working together. “And the fact that we were developing this connection between climate change and culture which was unique among the other parks that were applying,” he says.

G-WOW offers participants up close glimpse of Ojibwe cultures – the Bad River and Red Cliff Bands – and their close connection culturally and economically to the region’s water, land and wildlife.

G-WOW held its first institute in 2012.

Each summer, approximately 25 educators from Wisconsin and a few beyond its borders, have streamed in for four days of intensive hand’s on education.

Howk believes its growing ripple effect can make a difference environmentally, and he hopes for the Apostle Islands he helps steward.

“If people don’t about something, they’re not going to care for it. Not only are we helping people to learn morea bout 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.

Howk says sharing the magic of the 21 islands works best when you’re standing on one.

G-WOW participants board a double decker cruise vessel, destination Stockton Island. It is home to a range of ecosystems – from bog to savanna and pine forest.

Howk points to change he’s seen over his 30 year career – including the decline of paper birch trees.

“1988 was a summer of extreme drought and heat and shortly after that summer we started to seeing a lot of die-off among the paper birch in forests around here. After the drought years it weakens them and makes them susceptible to insect pests. So quite often when you come to a stand of paper birch trees around here, half of them are dead,” Howk says.

  We meander the short .04 mile shaded trail – ferns below, trees above – to Julian Beach. Slip off your walking shoes, and its sand sings under your feet.

“The longterm 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.

Parks invasive species specialist Michael Joyner breaks the spell and creates another.

Credit S Bence

Joyner pulls the educators into a circle and creates a Web of Life. He threads yarn magically through their fingers, sort of a super size dream catcher,

All goes well until Joyner places a shallow dish of water in the webs center, and slowly begins to snip at the threads of the web – each cut represents stresses to our ecosystems.

On the closing day of the G-WOW institute, teachers share their plans. Joni Chapman second from left, Peter Schmidt far right.
Credit S Bence

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

“This is going to be my 30th year of teaching and if I were to chose 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 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.

After a year of work at school, 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. They sat when Neil gave his talk, they were taking notes, they had their sketchbooks. They’re the ones who really make the difference,” Schmidt says.

One of Joni Chapman's 5th graders drew this 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.

A second grader's work.
Credit J Chapman

 “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.

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,” Chapman says.

Neil Howk with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore says G-WOW continues to bear fruit. The team just hosted a two-day coastal climate camp for 136 - 6th through 8th graders from Marathon county.

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