Young people will know the St. Croix River further in the future than anyone else alive today, and they are the ones who will be responsible for its protection in the face of difficult new threats.
That’s why they came together February 28 for the second annual St. Croix River Youth Summit.
Students ranging from elementary, middle, and high schools, and college students, from throughout the St. Croix River region, gathered at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for the day of learning and conversations.
More than 250 students from 10 schools attended the event, organized by the St. Croix River Association and its partners. Many of the students were selected by their teachers due to a passion for nature and conservation.
“For our second annual summit, we inspired nearly 300 young people to become stewards of our land and water resources and planted the seed that they are our future conservation leaders,” said Jaime Souza, SCRA River Connections Steward.
The day started with a welcome, and then a presentation by Ian Karl and Brittany Bosak of Northwest Passage, about the innovative Under the Surface nature photography program. They encouraged the students to become the next Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, or Jacques Cousteau, and lead conservation in the future.
The group then split up for two breakout sessions. Half the students played the Watershed Game, while the others created food webs to better understand connections in the ecosystem.
The Watershed Game let the small groups of students wrestle with the real difficulties of making decisions about land use, and how it affects water. Set up similar to Monopoly, The young people remained highly focused as they discussed how to have the greatest impact with limited budgets, what practices to reduce runoff would do the most good, and more.
The concepts are taught in plain language, with hands-on learning. It “provides a way to talk to people about issues without making them feel bad that they don’t already know this,” said Angie Hong of East Metro Water.
It is the same activity that local leaders, like county commissioners and mayors, have used to better understand their opportunities to protect the St. Croix River.
Food, then food web
While the kids ate lunch, they heard about environmental careers from a panel of four people who work in conservation-related jobs. The panelists ranged from recent college graduates to people with years of experience, and from nonprofits to the National Park Service to the private sector.
In the afternoon, the groups switched. The students who had played The Watershed Game now worked with the PBS SciGirls team to create a food web.
“A food web shows how energy moves through a community and the relationships among the different food chains,” SciGirls says.
The activity began with brainstorming all the living things in the St. Croix River watershed that the students could think up, writing the species’ names on notecards. and then used yarn to connect different components. It showed the interconnected nature of the ecosystem, all starting with energy from the sun.
- The sun passes the yarn to a plant of their choice.
- The plant then passes it to an animal (herbivore/omnivore) that consumes that plant.
- The animal passes it to another animal (carnivore/omnivore) that is their predator.
- Build the chain, ending at the top predator, then cut the string.
During free time, the kids got to visit with more than 20 exhibitors, talking to conservation professionals and learning about organizations active in the St. Croix River region.
At the end of the day, the students got back on their busses and went home. They took with them new knowledge, appreciation, and dreams.