Empowering Youth: An International Program Prepares Students to Lead Environmental Stewardship of the Gulf of Maine Watershed

Article excerpt

The ocean and estuarine ecosystems of both the United States and Canada are under considerable stress from factors such as pollution runoff, overfishing, coastal development, and the introduction of nonnative species (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy 2004). Coastal communities use watersheds in numerous ways and depend on them for employment and recreation. It is therefore paramount that citizens, particularly young people, are aware of the importance of protecting and preserving watersheds. The Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI) is striving to empower youth to take on stewardship roles in their communities. Through its Community Based Initiative (CBI) program, GOMI connects students across international boundaries within the Gulf of Maine bioregion, which includes much of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, all of Maine, and a small part of Quebec.

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Background

GOMI addresses environmental degradation by working with teams of students, teachers, and community members from around the Gulf of Maine to inspire youth to be stewards of the gulf and its watershed. In preparing young enthusiastic leaders who will take on these stewardship roles in their communities, GOMI provides solid training in environmental sciences and civic engagement. As a result, students become more environmentally aware and actively contribute to environmental initiatives in their hometowns. This bioregional approach helps participants from urban, suburban, and rural communities in Canada and the United States relate to one another as they learn about the interconnectedness of their watershed and their dependence on its continued health.

For the past six years, teams of middle and high school students and teachers from around the Gulf of Maine region have participated in the international CBI program. The program requires a commitment of two academic years combined with two summer residential CBI workshops. Participants are recruited via environmental groups and school systems and a team is typically composed of seven students and three adult mentors. Students apply as a team to participate in the program and are not charged any costs for the residential summer institute. The program is run with the help of a dedicated board and many volunteer partners, such as university scientists, public school teachers, members of community environmental groups, and government officials. Interested teams with a problem proposal apply to participate in the GOMI institute. Attempts are made to keep the team mixed with both first- and second-year participants. The second-year students help mentor the first-year students in order to keep some project continuity through the two-year cycle.

The CBI summer workshop

At the weeklong summer CBI workshop part of the program, student-mentor teams collaborate with other students, teachers, scientists, and community members on problem-based projects; are exposed to environmental stewardship concepts; and develop a project plan to be implemented in their home community. Then, during the academic year, student-mentor teams implement their home-based CBI projects. The main focus of the program is to empower students to be effective leaders as they explore ideas around stewardship and civic engagement in their local and regional environments. The weeklong summer residential workshop is the highlight of the year for the teams and GOMI organizers. At the workshop, teams connect with one another and set and adjust their goals. During this intensive week of workshops and interdisciplinary activities, teams learn

* the basis of scientific inquiry;

* how their local efforts will promote the health of the entire bioregion;

* techniques of project planning, execution, and presentation;

* approaches to presenting scientific findings and recommendations to councils or planning boards; and

* how to involve larger groups of citizens in their projects. …