Seedlings of change

Issue: Volume 95, Number 19

Posted: 25 October 2016
Reference #: 1H9d56

Geography students are examining a local environmental issue and taking practical steps to put their learning into action.

Teenagers have been spending the weekend gathering on the shores of Lake Horowhenua, also known as Punahau, to help plant native trees and grasses.

Some of them have only recently learnt the art of digging a hole, confides their teacher, HOD geography at Waiopehu College Dave Stout.

Waiopehu College is in Levin, and just happens to be a five minute drive away from Lake Horowhenua, the seventh-most polluted in the country.

Dubbed ‘Lake of Shame’ in a 2013 article in the New Zealand Listener, progress is being made to clean up decades of serious pollution and develop strategies to keep it clean in the future.

As such, the geography department at Waiopehu College is using the lake as a context for a NCEA Level 2 ‘geographic issue’ research assignment.

Lessons in consultation

Dave acknowledges the complicated nature of the politics surrounding the lake’s ownership and made the decision early on that the students’ focus would be on environmental solutions to help clean the lake.

“The condition of Lake Horowhenua is a big issue in Levin and the surrounding community – after all, it’s a significant feature of our region, and it’s significantly polluted. It’s not a random issue – it’s a big, relevant one, and I wanted our students to take ownership of it.”

The class investigation began with a range of speakers from the community.

These visitors included scientists and geographers from Massey University, representatives from local iwi groups and council members.

“Each of our speakers told us about how they believed the pollution can best be dealt with, and some of the remedies are quite radically different and a source of conflict within the community.”

Restoring wetlands

Lake Horowhenua was once surrounded by podocarp forest at the centre of a wetland ecosystem. The lake is owned by Muaupoko iwi who together with the Horowhenua Lake Trust are actively trying to restore the wetland system.

Once a pristine recreational site, it was from 1952 and 1987 the receptacle for treated sewage from Levin and a layer of sludge remains on the lake bed as a trigger for weed growth.

The lake is fed by various streams, but it is the surrounding market gardens servicing the greater Wellington region and dairy farms that have contributed to excess nutrient run-off and a resulting algal bloom that has made the water toxic.

Proposed solutions for the lake include the placement of sediment traps in the streams that flow into it, the removal of introduced species such as koi, and working with neighbouring farmers and market gardeners to change ploughing and fertilising practices.

The Horowhenua Council has invested in expensive machinery to reduce the amount of weed in the lake.

While some groups in the community want to see the lake bed dredged, others believe its ecological situation is on a knife-edge, and such drastic measures will cause irreversible damage.

Lake Horowhenua trustees are undertaking a major riparian planting project to absorb nutrient runoff from neighbouring market gardeners and farmers.

Due to the long-term and generational nature of an undertaking like this the council, lake trustees and wider community have been keen to get local youth involved in the project.

Students had to analyse those points of view, then reach their own conclusions about what the council should do to restore the lake to health, and there is a plan for them to share their report with the community.

“The next step forward is to take some of the reports that the students have written and to present those to council,” says Dave.

After listening to the different points of view, the students have developed what they believe are the best pathways forward for the wider community and the health of the lake.

A generational view

“I think our students can really see and feel the relevance of this project – they’re very engaged in it,” he says.

“I believe they can see it’s something that will continue through their lifetime, and maybe their kids’ lifetimes. They can say they’ve been part of the process of improving the lake for their community."

“Levin has got this potential asset. It’s beautiful, but it has potential to be a lot more beautiful. Our young people can see the future spin-offs – economically and socially. It’s about fostering a deeper understanding of their community.”

The project was timed to span the third term of this year, with a commitment to continue with the riparian planting and to involve other interested students in the school.

“It started out as our year 12 geography project, but we’re expanding it now."

“The school’s arranged for vans to take kids out there in the weekends, and get a wider group involved.”

Dave believes the students have a lot to offer in the discussion about the future of the lake, not least because they will eventually take over its care.

“The student buy-in has been very enthusiastic – it’s making geography meaningful and relevant to them."

“Young people don’t have an axe to grind, from a political point of view, and so they have a fresh and honest take on the solutions put forward.”

One plant at a time

Since beginning the research project, Waiopehu students and staff have been invited to help with the extensive riparian planting required to increase vegetation on the lake’s edge and thereby reduce nutrient flow into the lake.

Dave says their involvement has been largely instigated by the geography students themselves, in particular Leteisha Te Awhe-Downey who first made the approach to the Department of Conservation and iwi groups about their participation.

In doing so, the students have also been learning the finer points of digging holes, choosing suitable plants for varying conditions, and planting techniques such as slightly angling the seedlings to cope with the westerly wind.

In addition to learning these skills, the school community has already been benefiting in other ways.

“It’s not clear yet whether other schools in the region will get involved with the project, but maybe we’ll arrange it through a Community of Learning framework. So far there’s been a strong emphasis for us on building stronger connections with iwi and the community."

“Because of the number of people who came to the last planting session, it only took us 45 minutes to plant 500 trees. It was really nice afterwards to get together with kaumātua and DOC, share kai and talk.”

The seedlings have so far been sourced through DOC, but one of the iwi groups is in the process of setting up a nursery to supply native plants in the long term.

“We’re planting harakeke, manuka, miro and native grasses. The idea is to create something as close as possible to the natural forest environment before it got converted into farmland.”

Linking to the New Zealand curriculum

This project is a great example of how schools can use a local context to explain a contemporary New Zealand geographic issue, exploring the differing viewpoints that are held about it and providing a recommended course of action.

Achievement objectives

Teaching and learning programmes at level 7 for geography are designed so that students will gain knowledge, skills and experience to:

  • understand how the processes that shape natural and cultural environments change over time, vary in scale and from place to place, and create spatial patterns
  • understand how people’s perceptions of and interactions with natural and cultural environments differ and have changed over time.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 7:45 pm, 25 October 2016

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