Getting kids to focus can be tough. Getting them outdoors can be a chore. But tell them their classroom for a day will be on a sailboat on Lake Michigan and odds are good they’ll be aboard.

The Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association has successfully applied that formula for nearly 30 years with Michigan school kids crewing schooners equipped with science labs to inspire a love for the Great Lakes.

More than 120,000 children and teens have sailed on Inland Seas tall ships, participating in “scientist for a day” experiences on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Schoolship programs are conducted from the decks of two-masted Great Lakes schooners with students working alongside professional and volunteer instructors to learn about the Great Lakes ecosystem and careers in protecting Michigan’s greatest natural resource.

The schoolships introduce students to professional environmental sampling tools and techniques like trawling for fish samples, collecting plankton, sampling the lake bottom, and conducting water quality tests. Teachers of 3rd through 12th-grade students throughout Michigan are recruited to sign up their classrooms for an Inland Seas school ship experience, with an emphasis on schools with economically and educationally disadvantaged students.

Support from the DTE Energy Foundation will enable about 950 students to participate in a school ship experience this year. “School funding is inconsistent at best and this support from the DTE Energy Foundation allows us to reach students regardless of the funding situation at their school,” said Fred Sitkins, executive director of Inland Seas. “The schools we engage in DTE’s service territory can typically participate free of charge including transportation to Suttons Bay for our most disadvantaged school groups.”

Protecting the environment, education and employment are among the DTE Energy Foundation’s funding priorities. “Inland Seas inspires students to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math through this unique hands-on experience,” said Lynette Dowler, president of the DTE Energy Foundation. “We want to help create the next generation of professionals working on behalf of our Great Lakes.”

For many students, an Inland Seas experience is the first time they’ve been on the water. “That’s one of the things that keeps us going from an inspiration standpoint every day,” said Sitkins. “We try to create an unforgettable experience that nurtures a love for the Great Lakes that may lead them to careers in environmental or conservation services to protect our inland seas.”


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