Bob Thomson

Home state: Michigan
Organization or Facility: Alpena Public Schools - Ella White Elementary
Why do you think it's important to infuse Great Lakes topics in education?

I am a full believer in the place-based education approach to learning. Students learn best when they are doing and connecting that to the Great Lakes topics develops their understanding of the place where they live and connects learning to real world topics.

Northeast Michigan is rich in Great Lakes and natural resources. By surface area, Lake Huron is the third largest freshwater lake in the world – and our students are extremely fortunate to have this amazing outdoor learning laboratory right in our own backyard. A place-based education learning strategy allows me to connect my students with our community and these Great Lakes resources.

Describe one of your favorite classroom experiences/activities associated with the Great Lakes.

My fifth-graders raised lake trout in the classroom and then developed a delivery system to place lake trout fry on a reef in Thunder Bay. Through this project, students are connected with research scientists and a multiple science institutions partnering as part of the Lake Huron reef habitat restoration project. The students used the Da Vinci 1.0 3D printer to build and print the parts to create the delivery system. This was a great way to explore technology and practice engineering skills to essentially fit their underwater ROVs with a plastic pop bottle adapted to serve as a lake trout release device Their mission: to navigate their underwater robots (with young lake trout onboard) to underwater spawning reefs. The delivery was successful, but it ends when the ROV gets its tether tangled into the propeller. We were lucky to recover one of the GoPro cameras.

My students annually engage in explorations of Thunder Bay River watershed; and the exciting part of this project is that students – through their inquiry – always take their learning and stewardship projects in slightly different directions. In common, they are always connecting with Great lakes scientists and community partners to study water science, river and Great Lakes ecosystems, and important issues ranging from invasive species to native species restoration to marine debris. Students learn a lot from these partners yet they also collaborate in designing environmental stewardship projects that contribute to their science partners and benefit their community.

Annually, our students don their waders to study water quality (physical, chemical, biological tests) at a variety of sampling sites across the watershed. We have helped scientists study invasive species from zebra mussels and rusty crayfish in the river to quagga mussels in Lake Huron. Aside from our native lake trout project, we have also helped create a new native species ‘Super Hero’ poster series with Michigan Sea Grant – our first, the “Super Sturgeon.” We even learned about environmental-DNA and partnered with a Michigan State University scientists and the local Hubbard Lake Association to help pilot some new testing techniques to potentially identify invasive species in inland lakes. We also annually work with the NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and 4-H Youth Programs (our Alpena 4-H Robot Factory club) to build underwater robots which students compete in the MATE ROV competition; and then use their robots to help accomplish just about EVERY study they conduct.

I feel this is applied learning at its best; and I am proud of the leadership my students are providing toward these Great Lakes issues and stewardship projects.

What teaching methods do you use to engage students in Great Lakes activities?

Full-on inquiry, for students to be fully committed to owning their learning they have to be one posing the questions. Our inquiry-based projects have a strong emphasis in science, yet through the year we weave in a wide variety of studies from math (to interpret science), technology and engineering, social studies, and even reading and writing. As a leadership partner for the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, I apply place-based education instructional practices with my class where students apply their learning toward Great Lakes and natural resources science studies and stewardship projects that benefit our environment and enhance our local community. This strategy has bolstered my community partnerships; connected me with professional development opportunities such as through the Center for Great Lakes Literacy; and fostered many real-world, hands-on learning experiences for my students.

If relevant, share some examples of how you involved scientist(s) in your teaching.

Scientists in my classroom partnering with my students, is a common occurrence and something I strive to facilitate. Scientists from a variety of agencies and universities regularly help my students learn about and better understand Great Lakes issues; and these scientists help students explore their ideas, questions, and eventually their research models. In trade, our place-based education model challenges students to accomplish studies and stewardship projects that serve these science partners’ mission.

Recently Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environmental Protection Agency have ended a lengthy research project in our area to restore spawning reefs for lake trout. Years of manufacturing waste left a toll, filling local waterways and covering natural spawning reefs. In an effort to provide lake trout with a new spawning area and help restore lake trout populations, new reefs were created. My students were asked to participate in researching ways to acclimate hatchery-raised lake trout to the artificial reefs. For the last four years my students have been raising lake trout and releasing them on the new reefs, in hopes that they will acclimate to the reef and return as adults to spawn. The problem is that we are not sure how many actually reach the safety of the reef. We believe that if the young fry reach the reef they will have a much better chance to survive to adulthood. To complete this project we collaborated with several research biologist and local engineers. We also partnered with Sturgeon for Tomorrow and Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the opportunity host a native, state threatened lake sturgeon in our classroom. Students learned a lot about sturgeon, which eventually led to their sturgeon super hero poster project promoting the importance of native species.

My students are interested in invasive species ranging from zebra mussels to rusty crayfish. For many years, they have partnered with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists to learn about and study zebra mussel populations in the Thunder Bay River. We also collaborated with NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary scientists to investigate colonization of quagga mussels on various substrates – including historically relevant wooden shipwrecks. In this study, we explored shipwrecks with underwater robots; and learned that invasive zebra and quagga mussels are as much a threat to maritime archeological resources as they are to ecosystem biodiversity and food web health in Lake Huron. Finally, we collaborated with Michigan Sea Grant, state DNR and eventually a crayfish scientist from MSU to study populations and distribution of invasive rusty crayfish in our Thunder Bay River watershed. In all, we discovered that rusty crayfish have greatly expanded their range; and largely have displaced two of the more common native species. In response, we partnered with the state DNR to promote catch-and-release smallmouth bass fishing – our hypothesis that larger bass can potentially serve as better bio-controls of this invader crayfish.

Please share some interesting student reflections on ways they have developed a stewardship ethic. Include how they inspired others to make a difference to improve the health of the Great Lakes watershed.

This current year, my students embarked on new study and public awareness campaign focused on the issue of marine debris, and specifically plastic pollution, in the waters of our local Thunder Bay River and Lake Huron watershed. My students created and filmed a ‘Plastics 101’ video which has been shared in our community as an educational public service announcement; and the video also serve as an educational tool through the Northeast Michigan Earth Day Bag Project, an effort where third, fourth, and fifth-graders learn about the harms of single-use plastics to our Great Lakes and ocean and solutions to this growing problem. Their educational film can be viewed online: I believe this project best reflects how student reflections resulting from their hands-on, inquiry-based learning can lead to partnerships with Great Lakes scientists, community connections, and student-led stewardship projects.

It all started with their annual Thunder Bay river investigations, where students set up a study using trawl nets to measure microplastics flowing down the river at one of our collection sites. They analyzed and were surprised by their findings. One of my students noted, “If there are this many microplastics in this little sample, just imagine how many there are in the Great Lakes!” At this point students set up to learn more about the issue. They worked with a state DNR Fisheries modeling scientist to extrapolate their findings to a river-wide scale (based on river miles, flow rate, etc.). They met with microplastics expert, Dr. Sherri Mason, who is a professor of chemistry at the University of Fredonia New York; and learned about potential food-web interactions from Brandon Schroeder, a fisheries expert from Michigan Sea Grant and MSU Extension. They even connected with funding partners like the Tom’s of Maine Green Your School Campaign through Armed with this knowledge, students arrived at their stewardship project: to produce a public awareness campaign to inform their community about this issue. You can read more about this student project online:

A couple years back, my students had a chance to visit with a student researcher from the University of Notre Dame. She was working a study to explore the value and benefits of hands-on, place-based learning through the eyes of the student learners themselves (click here to learn more and view research report). Through the eyes of my students – they value these Great Lakes learning opportunities because they are fun, hands-on, and allowed them to learn about careers while working with scientists. Students also valued their learning experiences because they felt connected and valued by the community in which they live.


Editor’s Note: Bob Thomson is also a Chevrolet Green Educator Award winner, and his past students have won Disney Planet Challenge competition honors for their environmental stewardship projects. Thomson serves as a leader teacher for the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative network regionally, contributes to MSU Extension’s youth-STEM initiatives and has been supported by regional Sea Grant Center for Great Lakes Literacy. In 2017, Thomson was named Michigan Science Teacher’s Association Elementary Science Teacher of the Year.

Contact Bob Thomson: [email protected]