The Great Lakes
Fourth Coast of the U.S.
by Marcia Swan and Bruce Munson and Rosanne Fortner
Hmm . . . a Great Lakes article in an issue focused on oceans? Its not such a stretch to see the connection for the Sea Grant educators on the fourth U.S. coastline. For decades we have been telling teachers that anything they want to teach about the ocean, they can teach with Great Lakes examples (except for echinoderms and elasmobranchs, and even those are found in fossils of the region).
The Great Lakes have surfing, beachcombing, fishing tournaments, invasive species, reefs, dunes, coastal erosion, huge storms, wetlands, and water level fluctuations that exceed some tidal ranges. We also have seaports and shipping, shipwrecks, chanteys, a Sea Grant, a Marine Protected Area, a Marine Sanctuary, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, and a Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE)! The Great Lakes are recognized by Federal law as the nation's fourth seacoast (U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, 2004).
For those who haven't visited the Great Lakes, their sheer volume and geographic scope can come as a great surprise. The watershed spans 7°30 of latitude and 16° of longitude, reaching more than 1200 km from east to west and some 724 km north to south. These vast freshwater seas have more than 16,000 km (10,000 miles) of shoreline, roughly the same as the Atlantic coast. The Lakes drain over 247,000 square km of watershed and hold 20% of the world's supply of fresh surface water. Finally, the eight Great Lakes states are home to 82 million U.S. citizens, more than one-quarter of the nation's population. That fact alone makes it important for all students to learn about this unique and important environment.
To dramatize how people and resources are distributed through the lakes and their watershed, COSEE Great Lakes uses an active lesson called, How Big Is a Crowd, that involves the whole class. When students have completed the activity, they should be able to compare the relative sizes of the five Great Lakes and the distribution of their human populations, and describe some of the problems that arise when many people depend on a limited resource.
The Lakes and surrounding population
Outline the shapes of the five Great Lakes with strings on the floor or outdoors. For a class with up to 30 students, the lengths of string that will approximate the lake perimeters are: Lake Superior, 8.5 m; Huron, 6.0 m; Michigan, 6.0 m; Erie, 2.5 m; and Ontario, 2.0 m. In four of the lakes, a chalk line mid-way between the shores will represent the international border with Canada. Lake Michigan lies entirely within the United States, with no Canadian border.
Teacher Kathy Mattus has her students do research first to determine the relative sizes and order of the lakes from inland to the sea, and she has the students lay out the strings on the playground using what they have learned. The geography lesson is a dramatic one, especially for students who live on one of the lakes but know little about the others.
As the class gathers around the lake diagram, invite students to discuss differences in lake surface area. An advance Internet search can give them information on relative depths and water volumes of the lakes. While Lake Erie is not the smallest in surface area, for instance, it has the smallest volume because it is very shallow.
Next, assign students to represent people living on the shores of the lakes. The chart shows the relative population of the U.S. and Canadian portions of each lake's watershed. When students are assigned to a lake and country, they find their position and stand with one foot on the shoreline. Don't miss the chance to talk about how some of the lake shores are much more crowded than others. How do the students feel if they are alone on the shore, or crowded together? What kinds of land use might result in the population densities they are experiencing? Are more people living near the eastern or the western lakes? Are more people in the U.S. or Canada? Again, an Internet exploration using the Great Lakes Environmental Atlas would provide useful background information.
Studying fish resources
To demonstrate the biological richness of the lakes, we distribute bags of resources representing fish in each lake. We like to use a food product that produces some waste when it is consumed, like wrapped candy bites or peanuts in the shell. (Be careful to avoid problems with food allergies in the class.) Tell the class that each item represents 50 tons of edible fish! Distribute bags with these numbers of resources: Lake Superior, 8; Michigan, 35; Huron, 5; Erie, 50; and Ontario, 2. If the group is very small you may wish to halve the resources. Either way, it should be very clear that some of the lakes are much more productive than others. Can students think why this may be the case? Discuss the ideas and make notes on what to look up on the Internet later.
Invite the students to consume the resources by passing the bag for their lake around with each person taking one fish until all are used. While the fish are being consumed, set the stage for the next discussion by discarding some wrappers or shells into the lake, making an offhand comment like, we don't need this part, or, it will sink. Students who have internalized the notion of recycling and not littering may complain (we hope!), and that can open a discussion on how people have behaved in the past, where we can still see litter, and what should be done to prevent the problem.
Continue to dispose of the waste and compare the concentration in each lake. Is the amount of waste related to the lake size, or to something else? In the early part of the 20th century, it was common for industries and towns to dump their wastes into lakes and rivers, observing that eventually it was no longer visible so it must have gone away.
In reality, pollution flows downstream. The student in Lake Superior should send the food waste to those in Lake Huron, and so forth, downstream to Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario. How do the students feel about having to deal with wastes created by others? By the time the amassed pollution reaches Lake Ontario, would the students want to eat fish from that lake? Introduce the idea that, We all live downstream, and invite students to share their perspectives on what they have observed in this investigation and the earlier ones.
We have used these approaches in teacher education programs through COSEE Great Lakes and the Sea Grant programs in the region, and many teachers apply them in their classrooms. They report extending the activities into math, graphing, and environmental education activities. Wendy Lutzke, for example, is grateful for a physical representation of more abstract ideas.
Teacher Terra Tomlinson says, "I like activities where the kids actually represent some of their own data that they are working with. I especially like the fishing data and would extend the activity to include some graphing of the people and fish populations of the lakes." Julio deJesus from Puerto Rico plans to add a measure of retention time, for how long the water (and its pollution) remains in each lake. Marie-Pierre Lamkin appreciates how the activity brings population and resource use into an interactive format, and Jill Hollowell claims, "It helps students understand land use and gain a sense of how our individual actions affect water quality along with development and industry."
Debra Zolynsky reported that after the activity her students came up with some very good ways to reduce pollution—one being to paint this message on storm drains, using stencils: "Drains to Lake." In Language Arts, teacher Carol Gutteridge uses "How Big Is a Crowd?" with a reading of Holling Clancy Holling's children's classic, Paddle-to-the-Sea.
Would Great Lakes studies like these be useful on our salty coastlines? Should students with access to Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf coasts devote time to understanding these vast bodies of fresh water, far away from their homes? Teacher Tim Marvin thinks so. After watching teachers do these activities in a workshop, he wrote, I found this useful even at distant locations such as North Carolina. Many students have heard of the Great Lakes, but little more.
Research at the Ohio State University has shown that even in Ohio, students know more about the oceans than about the Great Lakes. COSEE Great Lakes is determined to increase student and teacher awareness of our Fourth Coast, the Inland Sea. This can be done through activities and investigations that comply with many state science education standards related to population, resources and environment.
©2007 Synergy Learning, Inc. All rights reserved.
Resources U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century. Part 1: Our Oceans: A National Asset (2004), http://www.oceancommission.gov/.
Seager (Swan), Marcia. Activity developed for Supplemental Curriculum Activities for Use with Holling Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea. Columbus: Ohio Sea Grant Education Program, EP-076 (1988), http://www.sg.ohio-state.edu/osgrant/ education/f-education.html.
COSEE Great Lakes can provide string sizes and population numbers for larger groups of learners. You can watch an online video of doing this work through the free archives of http://www.coexploration.org/ coseegreatlakes.
Our recommended reference for Great Lakes statistics is http://www.epa.gov/glnpo/atlas/intro.html.
- Marcia is Manager of Technology Transfer at Moldflow Corporation, based in Ithaca, New York. She developed How Big Is a Crowd as part of her MS project in environmental education at Ohio State in 1988.
- Bruce is Professor of Science and Environmental Education and Head of the Department of Education at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
- Rosanne is a Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science Education at The Ohio State University. In retirement she directs the COSEE Great Lakes.