Sandy Cunningham

Home state: New York
Why do you think it's important to infuse Great Lakes topics in education?

As an educator, I think that connecting students to and teaching through the lens of place is one of the most powerful approaches we can take to education. By introducing and teaching scientific principles through the context of the environment, water and soil resources, our communities, and specifically the Great Lakes Basin, we give students ownership of the content, empower them to see the bigger picture, and connect them to the place in which they live. Using the Great Lakes as an interdisciplinary context allows us to reflect on the history of our area, and show how it informs the present. As educators, this approach helps us to empower the next generation of Great Lakes citizens to make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives as they get older.

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

We begin the year narrowing our focus from the global environment to the Great Lakes. We use many adaptations of lessons from COSEE’s Greatest of the Great Lakes to learn more about the lakes, from physical characteristics, to the food webs of each lake, to the issues that they have confronted over time and into the present. As we learn about different aspects of chemistry during the year, we relate those principles back to water, and observe and connect to the role that they play in the Great Lakes and specifically the water resources in Western New York.

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

Over the course of the year, we spend a significant amount of time investigating the water quality of several streams in the WNY area, including Scajaquada Creek, Ellicott Creek, and the Buffalo River. We evaluate the physical, biological, and chemical aspects of these bodies of water, and learn to appreciate how the watershed and the historical land uses around these streams influence their water quality, and ultimately how these streams fit in as a part of the Great Lakes basin. We raise brown trout and learn about the Great Lakes fishery, and connect these year-long investigations to the spring release of trout in Ellicott Creek.

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

I have been fortunate to have an unbelievable network of scientists who are always willing to share their talents and knowledge with my students. We participate in the EPA’s Hydrolab loan program, which allows us to use the data sonde to collect data in local rivers and streams with a level of precision that ordinary testing equipment cannot provide. My classes have engaged in videoconferences with scientists from EPA and Sea Grant, and we welcome Helen Domske from NY Sea Grant to our school every year to talk about invasive species and current Great Lakes issues.