Lake Lanier Aquatic Studies: Non-formal Education at Its Complementary Best

by Peter Gordon, Education Director, Elachee Nature Science Center (article originally published in the March 2016 eObservations of the Georgia Science Teachers Association)

Students test water as part of Elachee and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper's Lake Lanier Aquatic Studies Program.Georgia is fortunate to have a diverse array of non-formal education providers.

This is especially true in science, specifically environmental education, where nature centers, government agencies, museums, aquariums, botanical gardens, zoos, advocacy groups, private businesses and contractors provide a variety of hands-on, minds-on standards-based programs for elementary, middle and secondary student audiences that are heavy on real-world illustrations and applications of classroom concepts.

Many of these programs can be valuable complements to classroom instruction and learning for teacher and student alike.   

Here is an example.

Sixteen years ago, Elachee Nature Science Center formed a partnership with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization located in Atlanta, to create a new educational program called the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center. The program originated at a time when growing state, regional and national attention was focused on the lake and the simmering but soon-to-boil over water wars that erupted between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.  

With the support of a grant from the Woodruff Foundation, Riverkeeper purchased and outfitted the Chota Princess, the original floating classroom. Elachee was responsible for designing the curriculum, providing the instruction and marketing the program to schools. We were very excited at the prospect of working with students and teachers on the waters Georgia’s most important reservoir. And as non-formal education provider, we knew we had a lot of flexibility in how we designed our curriculum. We originally created a 2-hour program divided between both boat and on-shore activities. 

This made sense to us because large groups would have to be divided in half in order to meet U.S. Coast Guard passenger limits. The smaller group sizes would also make for easier learning for students and more effective teaching for our staff. It soon became apparent that 60 minutes for instruction aboard the boat was not sufficient when we factored in restroom stops, getting students outfitted in life jackets, mooring and unmooring the boat, and myriad others activities that nibbled away at our precious instructional and learning time on the water. A three-hour program option, currently our most popular format, was soon added. 

Our first lesson was designed for upper elementary grades. Fourth and fifth graders conducted dissolved oxygen and pH tests that measured water quality, trawled for plankton that was then eagerly viewed under a microscope, and lowered Secchi disks over the railing (sometimes permanently) to measure turbidity. On shore, students scanned topographical maps to delineate watersheds, constructed pint-sized water treatment plants and hypothesized on how a variety of land surfaces would interact with storm water.    

As word of the program spread, demand grew and we expanded our curriculum to meet middle school and high school standards. Local college and university science education and environmental science classes came on board as well. We also began to explore ways to expand the program by tapping into our own community resources. Now students and teachers have an option and an opportunity to tour two City of Gainesville water treatment plants to see how drinking water is produced and waste water is recycled. Several high school classes were also able to tour Buford Dam after we received special permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  

Our staff relished each and every opportunity to add new classes to meet the growing demand. Requests from AP teachers and college and university faculty led us to design Lake Lanier “Water Quality Index,” a hands-on, two-hour boat program where students conduct a series of nine tests in order to produce an overall water quality grade of the lake. We developed the “We All Live Downstream” program about five years ago for upper elementary and middle school students. It is a two-part program that brings our staff into schools to guide students on a classroom journey through their local community watersheds before they embark on their own Lake Lanier educational adventure at a later date. 

Today, this important program serves over 4,000 students each year. Riverkeeper has created a similar program on West Point Lake near LaGrange. It is easy to see that the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center embodies some of the best of what non-formal education can bring to science education.