Despite the fact that they live in a city with such a significant historic role as a Great Lakes port, many of Buffalo’s public school students are lacking in knowledge and hands-on experience with the great natural resource that lies just outside their door.
A locally-based organization, Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education (BUOE) is partnering with the school-based community organization Closing the Gap in Student Performance, to provide hands-on water education and sailing programs on Lake Erie for hundreds of Buffalo students. BUOE offers several program options, including classroom, after-school, weekend, and multi-day summer programs. These are currently the only classic sail-training programs offered in our region, teaching students valuable lessons about water quality, water pollution and stewardship through a hands-on curriculum.
Since the organization was founded in December of 2008, BUOE has provided approximately 3,200 local students with field-based nautical and aquatic science education that is split between classroom-based lessons and learning right on the lake on the 73-foot traditional schooner, the Spirit of Buffalo. The group’s pilot program, Science Afloat, offers half-day school field trips to grades 3-12 aboard their “floating classroom.” Through individual and team training, students learn how to raise sails, steer and navigate the boat around the harbor, and also work their way through various learning stations. Stations cover aquatic topics such as plankton and pollution, benthic communities, water quality testing, watershed exploration, navigation and applied mathematics, invasive species, “Buffalo Wings” birding station, lake tank and Great Lakes biology, weather, buoyancy and boat building.
Last year, BUOE expanded this program to include a 6-week school-based program called Great Lakes Watershed Exploration (GWLE), which is geared to support the students’ classroom curriculum while increasing their environmental literacy, building critical thinking skills, and opening them up to new career paths. About 1,500 students from Buffalo’s public schools will take advantage of the GLWE program this year, many of them coming from low-income families and disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Most of our participants have never been on a boat or on Lake Erie prior to their trip with us so the program is incredibly high-impact,” said BUOE Executive Director and Founder Capt. Kate Mini Hilliman. “Students sometimes arrive in tears and leave laughing and wanting to come back the next day. Experiencing the Great Lakes firsthand gives them a new perspective and impression of their local environment and the freshwater so critical to their lives.”
According to pre-program testing that students took prior to enrolling, many of them had very little knowledge about the Great Lakes. Two hundred fifty students were evaluated, and out of that total, only 32 percent knew that the Great Lakes are made up of fresh water and only eight percent knew that they lived in the Great Lakes watershed.
“This year, our goal is to not only increase and affect student understanding and awareness of their Great Lakes environment but also engage youth in and empower them to do something about it,” said Hilliman. “Every young person – regardless of background – has the potential to change their world for the better; sometimes they just need the opportunity to see and experience it a little differently.”
Having received additional funding from the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Josephine Goodyear Foundation, Erie County Environmental Education Institute, and the Environmental Protection Agency, BUOE will be able to expand its list of programs this year. They will be offering Family Lake Exploration programs in June and July for families with young children, Science Afloat nautical and environmental science field trips for school and summer groups, and a four-day maritime skill summer camp called Kids at the Helm. The Science Afloat program will be starting on May 14 this year.