• Samantha Gunn teaches students about boreal forest ecology at Churchill River, Sask. (Photo: Chad Chicilo)

In the heart of the Saskatchewan prairies there is a 24-hectare piece of land called Brightwater, where students have the opportunity to go out onto the land for a unique outdoor classroom experience. Samantha Gunn is a consultant for the Brightwater Science, Environmental and Indigenous Learning Centre, located near Saskatoon, Sask. There, she coordinates programming, helping students to form a connection to the land.

On what the Brightwater program is all about

Our goal is always to provide an immersive experience for students in the prairie landscape and to help them develop a relationship with the land. We offer everything from a three-day overnight trip to as little as half-days. Most of the programming was in place before I started working here. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants in our school division, such as Louis Jones and Marcia Klein and Terri Clark. My job is to be responsive to the groups that come out here. I’ll work with teachers and students to plan their trip and even have teachers come out to the site to familiarize themselves with it before their class experience. 

On the curriculum connections for land-based learning

For the middle years, the focus has always been science heavy—we’re looking at diversity of life, ecosystems, water cycles and biology. In addition to that, the social studies curriculum looks at landscapes, ways of finding direction, and our relationship to the land. We work with teachers to develop pre- and post-trip experiences for their students. So what do you do to prepare for an ethnobotany lesson or a landscape teaching lesson? And then, how do you debrief from that and carry it into your classroom? The high school programming is still developing. There’s a really strong environmental science program, looking at things like water quality and soil samples, ecosystems, populations and communities. Recently we had photography teachers looking at different ways they can interact with the land and English classes that are doing novel studies that they’re tying to geography. The possibilities are endless and any teacher that can imagine a connection to land, we’re here to support them in a really robust way that aligns with curriculum.

On her favourite experience offered at Brightwater

Our Grade 8 winter camps offer a three-day, two-night experience that focuses on water and prairie ecosystems. On the first day, I’m working with the teachers on active and engaging lessons such as fire-building or cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. That way the students are out getting physical and interacting with the land in a really tangible way. On the second day, three facilitators come in. Elizabeth Bekolay, our science facilitator, will bring a water sample to our lab, where the students can look at it with microscopes and try to find organisms that are living in the creek. They’ll talk about watersheds, what they look like in our region, how they function and the impacts of human activity. They’ll work with our ethnobotanist, Sandra Walker, getting to taste some of plants that grow at Brightwater and talk about the impact of water on plants in human settlements. They’ll also have a lesson with our artist, Kevin Quinlan, working on sculpture, watercolour, or pastels, and it all ties into prairie landscape, flora and fauna. On the last day, students will usually invite an Elder to come in and meet with them. The variety of ways that the knowledge of Elders and traditional knowledge keepers is incorporated is vast. My goal is to ensure that it’s not just an add-on, but that it informs those other subject areas. 

Learning about biogeography at the Great Sand Hills, Sask. (Photo: Chad Chicilo)

On the benefits of land-based learning

Land-based learning is rich because there are so many entry points for students to connect with the material. We find that some students really connect with those lessons where we’re hands-on and moving. Some students connect with the visuals, like when they can see a soil profile. Sometimes it’s just what a student needs for a concept to click and move from the abstract to the concrete. We know physiologically that spending time on the land is good for us. I also think internalizing that knowledge of local landscapes is healing and hopeful at a time when we know that a lot of our students are dealing with anxiety, particularly around climate change and biodiversity loss. Getting them out on the land and helping them feel a part of that is the best thing we can do to show them that there is a hopeful future.

On the uniqueness of the prairie landscape

Most of the students when they first arrive have no idea that they’re on one of the most endangered and least protected landscapes in the world. We know that our prairies are a critical carbon sink and that when we have intact prairies we’re able to sequester massive amounts of carbon in root systems. At Brightwater, we’re really interested in restoring and repairing some of those damaged ecosystems and teaching kids about that process. It’s also important because the landscape and people who have grown and evolved with those landscapes have all suffered from the process of colonization. Repairing and reclaiming those prairie ecosystems goes hand in hand with the efforts of reclaiming culture and language in this landscape as well. I hope that the teachers and students get a sense of belonging in the prairie landscape.