Your Backyard is Bigger Than What You Can See

IJC staff
May 30, 2014
The Lake Winnipeg watershed.

Can you find Lake Winnipeg on a map? It’s in North America, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, just above North Dakota and Minnesota in the U.S.

But the lake has a much larger footprint. It drains an area that takes in four Canadian provinces and four U.S. states.

And when it comes to geography, there’s more to Lake Winnipeg – and any other lake, for that matter - than finding its location.

“Geography is linked to the environment,” says Connie Wyatt Anderson, a high school teacher in Manitoba. “In the Lake Winnipeg watershed, what you throw into the Bow River in Calgary eventually ends up in Hudson Bay.”

The Lake Winnipeg watershed. Credit: Canadian Geographic Enterprises.
The Lake Winnipeg watershed. Credit: Canadian Geographic Enterprises.

Wyatt Anderson is a governor of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the chair of its education wing, Canadian Geographic Education (CG Education).

CG Education has big plans for making sure more people --- especially children in the two countries --- find out everything they can about the Lake Winnipeg watershed, from the area it drains to the people and wildlife that live there.

CG Education has received a planning grant from the National Geographic Education Foundation for a project to enable elementary school students to undertake place-based investigations with freshwater in their communities.

Other partners include the National Geographic Society, the Geo Literacy Alliance of Washington State, and the North Dakota Geographic Alliance.

The idea is to let kids get their hands dirty while studying the local environment, in the outdoors.

“We may have the kids do field studies, water quality, or checklist observations,” Wyatt Anderson said. “We may end up looking at things like invasive species, human impacts on the land, indigenous knowledge and views of the land.”

Stones on the Lake Winnipeg shoreline. Credit: Joel Penner.
Stones on the Lake Winnipeg shoreline. Credit: Joel Penner.

The information that’s gathered will be shared among children in Canada and the U.S. using FieldScope, an online citizen science platform developed by National Geographic.

“We need to make people’s backyard bigger than what they can see,” she said.

The FieldScope feat will start in a pilot phase, tested out in a few school classrooms. Eventually, the learning would move to other schools throughout the watershed.

“I think the overarching goal for kids is environmental stewardship,” Wyatt Anderson said. “We want kids to understand how connected we are and how we’re all in this together.”

What difference will it make? “As part of education, we want people to be educated about the environment that they live in,” she adds. “What goes on in North Dakota affects Lake Winnipeg.”

The lake was chosen because, as Wyatt Anderson puts it, “Lake Winnipeg is dying right as we speak. It’s an ecological hotspot.”

It’s not just her opinion. Lake Winnipeg’s health is in a precarious state.   

According to Environment Canada, the lake’s water quality has deteriorated in recent years due to multiple sources of excessive nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which have increased the frequency and magnitude of algal blooms, including blue-green algae.

Canada launched a Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative in 2007, which has so far provided $36 million toward measures to restore the lake.

Like the project, the problems for Lake Winnipeg also are binational, since some of its pollutants originate in the U.S. and cross the border.

National Geographic decided to fund the freshwater project because it’s a great opportunity to bring attention to physical and human geography issues that cross country boundaries, says Brenda Smith Barr, director of Alliance Programs.

“It’s also an opportunity to create resources about an important watershed and continue to explore how to engage educators and students in interactive, relevant curriculum using geospatial technologies,” Smith Barr said.

Although this is not the first international FieldScope project, she said, it will be the first targeted to work with students and is the first international collaborative grant that the National Geographic Education Foundation has funded.

Wyatt Anderson is looking forward to getting the message out to students and the public-at-large.

 “To me, the geography is the environment. It’s like learning your ABCs to write a sentence,” she said. “Geography gives you the tools to understand the environment.”

A pier at sunset on Lake Winnipeg. Credit: Steven Coutts.
A pier at sunset on Lake Winnipeg. Credit: Steven Coutts.

IJC staff