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Michigan Students Dip Toes into Environmental Design at Plaster Creek

Grand Rapids, MI – Students at NorthPointe Christian High School are partnering with Plaster Creek Stewards, a local conservation group, to learn about environmental design and help restore the Plaster Creek Watershed using architecture and design. This unique approach to caring for the environment is building interest among students in caring for the land and water.

For a unit on Environmental Design in her Architecture and Design class, art teacher Heidi Hudberg takes her students to work with Plaster Creek Stewards.

“Our class does a hands-on project on green infrastructure,” Hudberg said. “For the last several years we’ve been focusing on the river and learning about the significance of local watersheds. This project helps students see that design choices can have a direct impact on things like water quality. Design choices can be both beautiful and functional, not simply avoiding further pollution, but actually helping to reverse it.”

Before taking students into the field to get their hands dirty with the work of restoration, a representative from Plaster Creek Stewards visits the classroom to teach the students about the role of and threats to local watersheds. “One of the things we hope to help the students see is that how we treat our watershed affects other people. By helping restore and keep it clean, we are ‘loving our downstream neighbors,’” Hudberg said.

Students learning to grow native plants. Image: J.R. Hudberg

This year, students will be working to restore a flood bench area by planting native plants to help slow and filter water before it enters the river system. By creating porous places with effective water filtering plants where the water can seep into the soil and be filtered before entering the streams and creeks of the watershed, students are helping to keep the water cleaner for both wildlife and human use. But they are also learning that environmental design can be beautiful to the eye and the soul, as they create spaces that are functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Previous projects have included a retention pond and bio swale, again planting native plants to help hold and filter water before it carries pollutants into the river system as well as planting a rain garden outside the art classroom.

Michigan teacher Heidi Hudberg shows her students how to plan a rain garden. Image: J.R. Hudberg

This integrated hands-on approach to learning has opened students’ eyes to both the realities of the environment around them and the impact they can have on it. Most never realized the condition of the watershed in which they live and carry out many of their activities or that they could improve the health of it. Perhaps most importantly, many students are making the connection for the first time about how interconnected people are through areas like watersheds. 

There’s a reason Plaster Creek Stewards refers to “loving our downstream neighbors.” By recognizing that others downstream are directly impacted by how the watershed is used and treated, there is an opportunity and an obligation to do what we can to ensure clean and healthy water is available to everyone.   

Students learn how to create a bioretention pond. Image: J.R. Hudberg

Hudberg is trying to teach her students that the small choices add up. That even little decisions can have a big impact for either the betterment or the detriment of our ecosystems and each other. She believes that environmental design is an opportunity not simply to teach theory and visual practices, but is a time when eyes can be opened to see how connected we all are and to do good beyond making something pleasing to look at.

“If we can learn to design spaces that are functional and beautiful, but that are also doing good for our environment and neighbors, that’s good design,” she said.

More About Plaster Creek

According to the Plaster Creek Stewards website, “The Plaster Creek Watershed occupies approximately 58 square miles, all in metropolitan Grand Rapids, Michigan. The creek itself is about 14 miles long. Its headwaters originate south and east of Grand Rapids, with many of the tributaries coming from agricultural areas around Dutton and Caledonia. The creek flows through commercial and residential areas of the city, and finally through industrial areas and low-income neighborhoods before emptying into the Grand River a mile south of the city center. By the time the creek enters the Grand River is it considered one of the most impaired waterways in West Michigan (read more about the state of Plaster Creek). For more information, view The Story of Plaster Creek, an interactive GIS database of the watershed created by the Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies department.”

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