UL and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) developed the UL Innovative Education Awards (ULIEA) in 2015 to honor programs in the United States and Canada leading the way in project-based learning, community citizenship and using the environment as a platform to STEM learning (E-STEM). In 2015 and each year since, we've awarded five organizations that create sustainable community solutions and provide innovative K-12 programming to solve real-world environmental issues.
The 2016 third-tier winner, the Chincoteague Bay Field Station's SPARK (Shore People Advancing Readiness for Knowledge) program, engages youth in local nature and ecological issues. Here's their story:
SPARK (Shore People Advancing Readiness for Knowledge), 2016 Tier Three Winner
ULIEA: Tell us about your organization
SPARK (Shore People Advancing Readiness for Knowledge) is a nature-based family learning program that operates as part of Chincoteague Bay Field Station. Chincoteague Bay Field Station is an environmental education center and field station that connects learners of all ages through field-based and hands-on learning. The SPARK program reaches out to families within Virginia's Eastern Shore and introduces them to public spaces and free/affordable programs that allow them to connect with nature. The program's underlying philosophy is that learning together as a family outdoors can be fun and purposeful for all involved. We believe that getting families outdoors is key to cultivating care and a sense of stewardship for the coastal environments that these people are very much a part of.
ULIEA: Tell us about your award-winning program
SPARK encompasses three different programs: SPARK Nature Detectives, Creekwatchers, and the Living Shoreline Team.
- SPARK Nature Detectives aims to build and foster a curiosity for nature in our youngest explorers through parent-student together time.
- Children in grades 6-8 participate in the Creekwatchers program where once a month they meet to collect data and monitor the health of local creeks. This is part of an ongoing citizen science project focusing on watershed health and we encourage students to think critically about human impacts that occur in the waters around them.
- The Living Shoreline Team invites high schoolers to tackle very real problems facing local areas. They monitor oyster castle health, restore native plants and measure water quality at a 30-acre site in Greenbackville, VA that faces consistent coastal flooding and declining salt marsh health.
With all three different programs, we aim to infuse STEM concepts while simultaneously exposing families to new outdoor experiences.
ULIEA: Why did you include an environmental piece with the STEM initiative?
Here on Virginia's Eastern Shore, families see first-hand how our environment is changing. We want the families in our program to feel and know they are making a positive environmental impact.
In today's world, the E-STEM initiative is a huge part of the environmental movement. We believe nature is the perfect springboard into STEM and by introducing and building a foundation of E-STEM concepts, we see students' desire and confidence grow and lead them soundly into whatever life path they choose. These students are the next generation of leaders and decision makers and we want to see them connect with their surrounding natural world.
ULIEA: How has your program been received by the community?
We started by serving 25 families, and now, we serve over 250! They look forward to annual events and new opportunities as the program grows. It's encouraging to see our core group of families come back every month but we also love meeting the new families that join because they bring fresh excitement to our program. Not only do these families get to connect with nature, it also gives them the time to connect with one another. We love building and being a part of the community.
ULIEA: What is your program's biggest success? What do you hope to achieve?
Our biggest success is giving families the opportunity to explore and invest in their local environment and resources. We get to watch and be a part of these families developing a sense of stewardship and connection with nature. Kids integrate their excitement for SPARK into science fairs, competitions promoting the importance of healthy soils, and living shoreline restoration efforts. We hope to provide these kids with the opportunity to explore their E-STEM interests now, in higher education and in careers that give back in that field.
How will the ULIEA grant money help your program?
With our ULIEA grant, we were able to purchase a mini-bus to support the program. It can be hard for families on Virginia's Eastern Shore to find the time and resources to make it to programs like ours. The mini-bus will provide more families with consistent access to our programs. We want nothing to stand in the way of families coming and participating and this is a huge step toward that.
ULIEA: What does it mean to be a ULIEA Winner?
The UL Innovative Education Award opened a lot of doors for our program. We are excited to take SPARK to the next level and the funding and energy we gained from this experience will take us there. The teams at UL and NAAEE were so supportive and passionate about our mission and we can't thank them enough. We are thrilled to be a part of a bigger team that is working toward cutting-edge E-STEM concepts and learning. We are honored to join the ULIEA community!