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Wetlands and Wetheads

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Retired biologist Al Smith was walking his dog along the rail bed that runs behind Tantramar Regional High School in Sackville, New Brunswick in 1997 when it occurred to him that it would be a great place for a freshwater impoundment. He took this idea to Science Department Head Chris Porter, who quickly latched on to Smith’s vision. Now the Tantramar Wetlands Centre has 40 acres of wetlands, two full-time staff and runs research and education programs year-round for more than 4,000 participants.

Historically, in pre-settlement times the area around the high school was almost entirely saltwater marshes. In the 1600s, the Acadians settled in the area, draining and dyking the marshlands for agriculture. In 1775, English settlers moved in, further draining the marshes. It was about two centuries later than Porter began the project that would restore a part of the Tantramar marshes, benefiting students in the process.

The restoration of the wetlands was “a pretty big engineering requirement,” says Rick Wishart, Director of Education for Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC). DUC carried out the construction and financed, along with other key partners, what would become the Tantramar Wetlands Centre (TWC).

At the time, the big “buzz” in New Brunswick was uniting curriculum around a common theme, according to Porter, so “the timing was right” for a project that could be used to teach science, art, social studies, and vocational studies in an integrated manner.

Students were involved right from the beginning. About a dozen ninth graders teamed up and shadowed different partners. They met with site engineers to learn how to build impoundments. They learned about the importance of wetlands in the ecosystem from wildlife biologists. They discovered how to develop promotional materials from a communications firm. “It was an opportunity for enrichment for students who wanted to work with the partners,” recalls Porter.

TWC has become a regional centre that provides interdisciplinary programs for other schools. While the centerpiece is the wetlands, TWC also uses a 6,000 square foot indoor facility that provides laboratory space and a fully wired teaching theatre to support the outdoor programs.

Wetheads Teach Younger Students
Each year over 2,000 fourth graders come to TWC to be educated by high school students known as the “Wetheads.” In a field trip developed with DUC, Wetheads use hands-on activities and games to introduce younger students to the values of wetland habitats. Critter dipping, birding, relay games and mystery touch boxes are all part of this action packed field trip.

In preparation for the yearly onslaught of fourth graders, fifty Wetheads, teachers and community volunteers gather at TWC for an annual training day. A Survivorstyle competition aids in the instruction of program elements.

Programs such as Case Study of a Wetland, Population Dynamics, Wetlands through Waterfowl, and Wonders of Wetlands engage students in banding birds, sampling invertebrates, identifying birds and drawing conclusions about the quality of the wetland and the potential threats of human disturbance to its function as a habitat.

“We’re busy. We’re busy even in the winter,” laughs Porter, now the Director of TWC. They’ve added winter programs to accommodate all the visiting schools. “We’re still attracting a lot of kids who want to come down here,” adds Porter, “And we’re still hot in the eyes of the teenagers who work here.” Says 11th grade student Samantha Richard, “The wetlands centre is the most happening place in the school. I love working here.”

Reaching Teachers Too
Students are not the only ones paddling canoes and dipping for insects at TWC; educator workshops ensure teachers are as well informed as their students. Teachers can attend various workshops at the wetlands and at the nearby Jolicure Lakes Field Station during the school year and in the summer. Teacher workshops are offered in cooperation with the New Brunswick Department of Education, Educating for Sustainability in New Brunswick, and regional experiential tour companies.

Wishart says he is impressed “with the enthusiasm and ownership [the high school students] take in the program. They’ve really bought into it and own it—the teachers, too.” Wishart adds, “The teachers use the wetlands to modify what they’re doing, whether it’s math, literature or music.”

Centres of Excellence
Others are impressed, as well. TWC has won several regional and national awards including The Conference Board of Canada’s Partners in Education Award in 2000 and 2003, the Award of Excellence in Environmental Education from the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM), and the New Brunswick Environmental Leadership Award.

DUC is using TWC as a template for other schools around Canada. “We’re trying not to make this a unique thing,” says Wishart. DUC is developing a network of wetlands, what they are calling “Wetland Centres of Excellence.” Five schools currently are involved at different stages of development.

From marshes to agricultural fields and back to marshes, Tantramar wetlands have come full circle. And in the process students, teachers and TWC’s many partners have learned a great deal about the importance of wetland habitat and the benefit of integrating environmental education into the school curriculum.

Environmental Education and Training Partnership
January 18, 2006

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