Watershed moment

River 2Student project addresses area river pollution, strengthens community ties

It was a chilly, rainy September morning when Hillary Johnson and 20 of her classmates climbed into canoes and kayaks at Phoenix Park in downtown Eau Claire for what was for many their first venture onto the Chippewa River.

For the next two-plus hours the students — all of whom were enrolled in the university’s first “Environmental Conservation and Action” class — and their professors observed the river and its surroundings, took photos and began to think about how they might help educate the public about pollution issues in the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area.

“We paddled a section of the river together to get a first-hand experience with the river and give us a sense of how important the river is to our community,” said Johnson, a junior international geography major. “I love the perspective of the world around you that you can only get from the water. I’ve never found anything quite as peaceful as sitting in a boat on the water, and canoeing the Chippewa River was no different.”

Three months after that first river excursion, the students premiered the online version of the “Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour,” which provides the public with information about specific pollution issues affecting the LCRSNA. The virtual tour — which features 11 three-minute videos about different environmental issues found along the river — can be viewed on YouTube and UW-Eau Claire’s Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies website (www.uwec.edu/watershed/tour).

“If awareness of the tour gets to enough people, it can have a positive impact on the community,” Johnson said. “Education is key when it comes to changing social behaviors. If people are aware of the pollution affecting the Chippewa River and ways they can prevent it, serious changes can be made toward making the river a cleaner and safer place.”

In addition to being online, the tour also is accessible from Eau Claire bike trails or the Chippewa River as people hike, kayak, canoe or bike to pre-set GPS waypoints on the river, where they can read student-created messages about various types of pollution affecting the river. Maps highlighting the tour stops are available at stores and other locations throughout the Chippewa Valley.

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Students prepare to launch canoes and kayaks on the Chippewa River as they begin a project that will result in the “Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour.”

“When you go on the Chippewa River, you can’t help but fall in love with it,” said Ruth Cronje, an associate professor of English and one of the four course instructors. “Even on that rainy day when we went out with the students, it was absolutely beautiful. If we can get the public on the water for the tour, it will be a powerful experience. It will get people thinking differently about the things we as individuals and as a community are doing to and along the river. If this tour encourages even 50 people from the community to get out on the river, it will be worth it.”

The tour features 11 stops, each highlighting different pollution issues affecting the river basin. Topics vary from invasive species issues to light and noise pollution to road salt to pharmaceuticals. The first stop, in Phoenix Park, provides an overview of the river basin, its importance to the region and the pollution threats it faces.

“The students did a great job,” Cronje said of the tour. “It’s a quality project, and it will do its job well. It addresses real issues that real folks will care about. And it talks about the issues in a way people can understand.”

Sarah Peterson, a project mentor, was surprised by the extent of the water pollution in the Chippewa River area.

“We’re fortunate to have the Chippewa River area here with so many native plants and animals, but pollution is a huge issue,” said Peterson, an English major who graduated in December. “Through this project, I’ve come to feel like it’s my obligation to know more about water pollution issues so I can make better choices in my day-to-day life.”

Peterson and her project partners hope community members feel the same way once they learn about the variety and severity of pollution problems in the region.

“These problems have an impact on humans and animals,” Peterson said. “In the project, we’re addressing problems from a biological standpoint and from a human standpoint. We want people to understand how interconnected our health is with our environment.”

Johnson and Lauren Kurkowski, a junior English major, studied the impact lawn and garden pesticides have on the river basin. In their video, they share their findings and offer simple ways community members can use pesticide alternatives, as well as share ways to prevent contaminated runoff from getting into the river.

“We hope that by educating the public about the dangers of pesticides getting into the river, people will change their behaviors regarding pesticide use,” Johnson said, noting that she and Kurkowski worked closely with on- and off-campus environmental experts to complete their portion of the tour project.

Johnson said the off-campus connections were especially meaningful since they gave her ideas about how she can get involved in the Eau Claire community.

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A lot of the students from different majors grabbed the opportunity to try things they hadn’t done before, and they ran with it. I think this was a phenomenal experience for these students.­ — Paula Kleintjes Neff

Community agencies that worked with the students were Clear Vision Eau Claire — Sustainability Task Force; Lower Chippewa River Alliance; River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council; the UW-Extension Lower Chippewa River Basin educator; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and UW-Eau Claire Environmental Adventure Center.

Fostering those community connections was an important part of the class, said Garry Running, professor of geography. The community partners served as resources, helping students better understand complex issues, he said. They also directed students to legal documents, research studies and other resources that helped them gather and verify information that was critical to their presentations, he said.

Most importantly, the community partners helped students learn how to be effective civic change agents, said Running, who co-taught the course with Cronje; Paula Kleintjes Neff, professor of biology; and Don Mowry, professor of social work and director of the Center for Service-Learning.

“The students learned there are a lot of people and organizations working on these issues,” Running said. “And they learned they can have a seat at the table if they listen and share information in ways that lay people can understand. This was a real project that took place in the real world. For a lot of students, that was a new experience.”

Faculty can’t teach students to be effective agents for civic change by sitting in the classroom, Cronje said. That’s why a project like this one adds so much to a student’s educational experience, she said.

“We tried to break community-campus barriers by getting students involved in authentic community projects so they can see themselves in the role of a civic change agent,” Cronje said. “Our students learned that being a change agent is hard work but worth the effort. That’s a lesson they’ll carry with them. They’ll work in the real world, so they need to know what’s needed to succeed there.”

Katrina Smith and senior German major Kate Ebnet spent hours researching and creating the project’s introduction, which touches on the biological, economic and recreational significance of the area and provides an overview of how and why everyone who lives and works within the river basin is responsible for the pollution that flows into the river.

“The conversations I’ve had with people who are highly involved with the river and show a passion for this area have been invaluable in inspiring me to work toward a better future for our environment,” said Smith, an ecology and environmental biology major who graduated in December. “But the real value of the course comes in its application. We hope this project will share knowledge about important environmental issues with the public and that our community will move in the right direction to protect and preserve the beauty and biodiversity of the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area.”

A project strength was that it brought together students from a variety of majors, Kleintjes Neff said. While there were some science majors in the class, there also were students majoring in political science, business, foreign languages, communications and other disciplines, she said.

“All these students were pushed into areas that they haven’t been exposed to before,” Kleintjes Neff said. “If some of the science students thought the class was going to be easy, it was not. They left with a new level of respect for the field of communications. A lot of the students from different majors grabbed the opportunity to try things they hadn’t done before, and they ran with it. I think this was a phenomenal experience for these students.”

While the goal of creating an educational tour was consistent, the plan for achieving that goal changed often, Smith said. The fluid nature of the project was sometimes stressful but also a good learning experience, she said.

“The path of the course was ever-changing, and our projects were constantly being updated and refined to reflect new information and techniques gained from an environmental communication standpoint,” Smith said. “It wasn’t always easy, but the tour was better because of the changes.”

Helping students learn to communicate effectively about environmental issues was a primary goal of the course, said Cronje, noting that creating projects that would resonate with the public — not just a professor — was a new experience for many of the students. The instructors agreed it was important to find ways to help students see what impact their messages were having on real people, she said.

“The students’ grades were tied to findings from usability studies they had to conduct to determine if their audiences were understanding their key messages,” Running said. “It was a new concept to these students. They were anxious, but I think they saw the value in it at the end. The tour was much stronger because of the testing they did along the way.”

Many students came into the class thinking they knew a great deal about the environmental issues that were addressed in the tour, Cronje said. But as they did their research and completed their usability testing, they realized they had a lot left to learn, she said.

“They came to realize that they had a surface understanding of the issues but that they had to dig deeper to produce meaningful messages for the public,” Cronje said. “It’s not easy to distill information into three-minute videos, so they had to truly understand the issues in order to identify the key messages. It was stressful for the students, but at the end of the day it gave them a huge sense of empowerment.”

Faculty who oversaw the “Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour” project hope future classes and projects will build on the tour, Kleintjes Neff said. Creating a similar tour for children or a version that addresses environmental concerns in rural areas might be viable future projects, she said.

The “Pedal and Paddle Pollution Tour” received financial support from UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Commitment and the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board. A year ago, the Student Senate and the UW System Board of Regents supported increasing the amount of differential tuition UW-Eau Claire students pay, with the new dollars going to fund Blugold Commitment projects that enhance student learning.