Flint River Watershed Coalition program at Kettering University helps create young stewards of the river

“It’s very near and dear to my heart,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “Get out there with us and see firsthand how fabulous it is and join us to help to continue to protect and preserve it.”

There are stretches of the Flint River that you could paddle for more than two hours without seeing a single road crossing. There are bald eagle nests along the path and other nature and wildlife to enjoy.

“It’s very near and dear to my heart,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “Get out there with us and see firsthand how fabulous it is and join us to help to continue to protect and preserve it.”

The Flint River is an important part of the Flint and Genesee County community that needs to be learned about, preserved and protected. The same goes with all the water systems along the Flint River Watershed.

Hundreds of students participate in the GREEN Summit at Kettering every year.

And that’s just one of many thing students are learning through the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) program, a program where middle and high school students throughout Genesee County learn to test streams, rivers or creeks, while learning about the environment.

On May 20, middle and high school students from all over Genesee County and surrounding areas are coming to Kettering University for the GREEN Summit to present what they have learned this year about the rivers or creeks near their schools.

The process teaches students communication skills and how to be thoughtful and precise with their work, often doing 20 or more tests on their water system. But it’s also much more than that.

“Many students have a negative connotation to their local river or stream. It’s dirty or dangerous. After they go through this program they realize it’s actually a good, healthy stream and they want to protect it,” Fedewa said. “That’s the really exciting piece we have found. Prior to this program students don’t necessarily feel empowered to affect change in their community. After GREEN, they have this almost 180 degree switch. They think ‘I can have an impact.’”

Around 20 classes will be presenting at the summit, showing what they learned and also participating in breakout sessions to learn about more environmental topics and careers.

Dr. Robert McAllister, Inorganic Chemistry faculty member, first advocated for the GREEN Summit to move to Kettering approximately five years ago. With Kettering’s STEM focus and involvement in the community, it just made sense, he said. And the program itself is a great benefit for the students.

“It gives students the sensitivity of what is going on in the rivers that are flowing through the Flint area and the Genesee County area,” McAllister said. “Anytime an individual has an interaction with a water system they learn how to appreciate the system. There’s all kinds of good lessons with the GREEN program.”

‘We’re the voice of the river’

Jack Stock, director of External Relations at Kettering, is hoping the GREEN program and summit will bring more attention to the Flint River’s importance in the community.

It brings the younger generation to the river, to the watershed, to the water sources in the community.

“When you do that you accomplish a number of things. One of the things it does is demystifies the Flint River,” said Stock, who is a board member of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “It used to be dirty and a dumping grounds. In the last 20 years there’s hardly any manufacturing on it. And the recuperative power of the river is simply remarkable. The work the Flint River Watershed Coalition is doing is great.”

There’s a stigma around the Flint River. But truth is, the river is beautiful, Fedewa said. There is regular testing done on the river water and its tributaries. There’s regular and ongoing clean-up efforts throughout the community. The Flint River Watershed Coalition is partnering with others to protect, preserve and improve the watershed.

“Water is everything. It’s vital to our existence. We need to conserve and preserve nature. At the end of the day if we can’t take care of our water, it would be the end of everything,” Stock said, adding that the river has so much to offer. “We should see it as 142 miles of recreational opportunity, as full of opportunities for family activities, to get out on the beach, to canoe and kayak.”

The GREEN program is in its 27th year. It’s an enriching program that allows students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in a tangible way.

“It’s a mindshift for them that they have this asset in their community that’s worth protecting and they can play a role in that,” she said. “It’s not only a learning experience. They are gathering real hard data that’s reported to the county and then to the state.”

Dr. Jim Cohen, Applied Biology faculty member at Kettering, believes the GREEN program also gives the students a way to explore science using a more dynamic approach.

“When students are in grade school, they learn science as something that’s really static, just facts in books. When the students are participating in something like collecting data on rivers and streams and presenting that data at the GREEN summit, especially at a young age, the students realize there is science going on everywhere and you can be a part of it,” Cohen said. “The students get to see what it’s like to be a scientist and maybe this gets them interested in being a scientist. It’s exciting. This opportunity really helps students think about the environment. “

The better understanding of environmental science and science in general, the better it is for these kids when they are older citizens helping to shape policy decisions, Cohen said.

The program can also be a start to a new generation finding appreciation for the river and its assets.

“We’re building the next generation of stewards. We have a fabulous river system within the Flint Watershed. It’s got a bad reputation. People just don’t know it and don’t understand the value of the Flint River and its tributaries play in these communities,” Fedewa said. “We’re the voice of the river and we want to re-introduce everyone in the community to the river system. We need the entire watershed community loving this river, using the river and wanting to protect it. The students now have this connection to such an important piece of their community.”

For more information about the Flint River Watershed Coalition, visit their website. Simple tips to help make a difference and protect the water are also available online.

For more information on the GREEN program, visit their website.