How an arts-based underwater photography program functions as a platform for student driven scientific inquiry
(or) Thirty years after hearing a B-side Iron Maiden song, I finally get it
Toben Lafrancois is an invertebrate biologist, aquatic ecologist and adjunct professor at Northland College, Ashland, WI. He has led and partnered in numerous programs engaging youth in outdoor settings, most recently, an underwater photography initiative for the In a New Light project of Northwest Passage, a mental health program for at-risk teens. Agate invited Lafrancois to relate his perspective on the challenges, educational merits and transformative potential of personal encounters with aquatic environments. He offers a view from the outside in—as a teacher and program leader— and from the inside out, reflecting on his own philosophy, as shaped by his experiences in wild places.
Let me take you back to a recent summer day spent with a group of students on the Namekagon River (WI). I’m holding up a pteronarcyid stonefly one of them found while exploring this section of river. The critter already has their attention, but to amp things up a bit I go for the gore and explain their autohemorrhage defense, how they can bleed out of their leg joints to show they are distasteful. Gore is a reliable way to generate interest in biology, so a few others snorkeling nearby swim over to listen. The next obvious stories to tell are about the stonefly life cycle, leading to food webs, leading in turn to how functional feeding groups are important to river structure and function. The students listen attentively but not quietly as the river wanders on by, some picking up other rocks for their own stonefly and others sticking their faces into the water (but not ears—so I know they are listening). The ecology ‘lesson’ is conversational and driven by their questions. We’re hitting big concepts and they are forcing me to find good ways to define them. That day, at that moment something clicked into place for them—and for me.
Those of you who are teachers know the satisfaction when authentic, student driven inquiry really works. We started that day by snorkeling around and exploring. I didn’t tell them to look for bugs, I didn’t say much at all other than point out some safety lessons relevant to that stretch of the river. One student found the stonefly, and by simply telling stories about the biology the other students gathered around and suddenly we were in the middle of an advanced ecology course. The Namekagon was a critical partner in all this, stimulating their natural curiosity and sense of wonder. Standing in the river with the bug in your hand you can feel the flow of the water, so the streamlined body form of the stonefly makes sense. This brings up other relationships between physiology and ecology. They see the shredding mouthparts, sense the fish lurking around, and watch the rain run off the boat landing creating a murky plume. It’s easy to define coarse particulate organic matter when you are kneeling in it. Wonder-generated questions are in many ways the core of scientific reasoning. This core is both rational and aesthetic, formal and creative. It’s also the gold standard of what folks are trying to create in and out of schools, not just to increase scientific literacy but to foster a genuine interest in the world around us. Genuine connection to the world around us.
On this day, their feelings of joy and discovery were the fruits of a lot of training with snorkels and photography equipment. Our overt aims, after the health and safety of our participants, are simply to explore freshwater systems and take good pictures. We let the science, natural history, and conservation topics emerge from their curiosity. The result that day was that an observer would have thought we were speaking with an AP biology class or recruiting graduate students. But these were not incoming graduate students or high school students from AP biology class. In fact, most of them struggle to be in a classroom at all. The students in this program are generally dealing with severe social and mental health obstacles that most of us cannot begin to understand. They are clients of Northwest Passage, Ltd (NWP), a mental health treatment facility located in northern Wisconsin for juveniles from around the country. Programming at NWP has focused on blending traditional mental health treatment with arts and nature based therapy since 1978.
How did an underwater photography qua therapeutic treatment, arts program, and science class get started? The general structure of our program has been described in the April 2015 issue of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine. Ben Thwaits is the prime mover of the photography program at NWP, and his inspiring TED talk gives his side of our story. For my part, I’d have to start with a van ride almost 30 years ago.
Teenagers are weird and sometimes it takes a while for the obvious to sink in
1987. It’s very confusing being a teenager, but 1987 clarified some things for me. I distinctly recall a van ride back from the very first Edgewood High School Field Education Course developed and run by Joe Zaiman (Madison, WI). We had spent two weeks on Madeline Island (Apostle Islands, WI) not just learning but doing field science. I had my Walkman on listening to Iron Maiden’s epic album Powerslave. I was spacing out, but during their version of ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ the oft misquoted line stuck out: “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.” It is a testament to the power of heavy metal that it got a teenage boy actually thinking. I loved being on Lake Superior, more than anything I had ever loved before. Gitchigame got into my veins and called to me in ways I couldn’t articulate. I also wanted to find something to do with my life that was worth doing—guidance counselors and grandparents were nagging and I needed something to say. Despite my enthusiasm, lack of talent was keeping me from becoming a professional skateboarder and that was my only idea to date. What next? I decided then and there to become a scientist and work on aquatic systems. Water was everywhere, but it needed protection if we were going to drink it. Job security, and I could work in cool places: on boats, or better yet be like Jacques Cousteau!
Fast forward to 2010 after a wild ride that took me from science to philosophy to firefighting to professional diving and back to science, teaching all along the way. I had the fortune to continue working with the Edgewood Field Ed Course as a mentor and teacher as well. Working with the National Park Service (NPS) I was using SCUBA to install and monitor experimental systems in large rivers while also conducting my own research; I was a guest professor at St. Olaf College for a few wonderful semesters; and I was co-directing a youth program on the St. Croix River for Arcola Mills. All of my work was centered on freshwater systems—it seemed my childhood dreams had come true. But something was not quite there and I wasn’t sure what.
That’s when I first saw an In a New Light exhibit, featuring the work of kids who are in residence at NWP. Ben Thwaits founded the In a New Light program when he was teaching and realized how nature photography was doing something for the kids. They were calmer, more focused (ha!) and all the life skills and treatment they got at NWP were becoming concrete for them. They were taking professional quality photographs and, many for the first time, telling their own stories. Through photography they were connecting to nature and to themselves. I saw an exhibit at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, and the rest online at the NWP In a New Light Gallery. The pictures… indescribably powerful. They reminded me of the rivers that ran in my veins and my experiences in Gitchigame as a youth.
The photographs the kids were taking in National Parks reached deep into me to find that metaphysical Mepps lure I swallowed so long ago, yanked it out, and jingled it in front of my face. The next day I called Ben and simply said “Ben, let’s take your program and sink it.” Luckily he agreed, and so did the National Park Service. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway funded our initial efforts, and the National Park Service remains our stalwart supporter through the Apostle Island National Lakeshore and the Submerged Resources Center.
Creating an immersive program
When Ben and I started out together on this venture, we thought at worst the participants would have some splashy fun. I can’t emphasize enough that on the ground our entire focus is the current and future health and well-being of our kids. Everything else is secondary. That said, a secondary goal was that our teams would get really great photos to astound people with the beauty of the underwater world, get them to care about it. Things went quicker and much further than we ever imagined—and our highest expectations were blown out of the water. The kids didn’t just have fun, they embraced the life aquatic fully and completely! They had a great time in the water, and their photographs are truly amazing not just in their professional quality but in the way they tell stories about their subjects. In turn, the program was helping our kids in ways we didn’t expect. It’s tough to articulate that part and that is best left to their own words (a book of their photographs and stories is on the horizon for spring 2016, meanwhile you can get a taste here).
Success in healing I leave to the kids to describe, but on the level of broader impact we can identify success from the overwhelmingly positive responses. For example, in 2015, our program’s participants were awarded the Lowell Kessig Conservation Award by the WI Lakes Partnership, an important validation that the art and the conservation ethics these kids are advancing are truly powerful and authentic.
As an educator, I am always trying to understand and create the conditions for this sort of success for students. There is no algorithm to explain or recreate authentic and immersive experiences in nature, and those of you who are doing this work already know some of the intangibles. With the humble notion that swapping stories can help all of us, I present here some elements that I think have made a difference for us.
Commitment to student-driven inquiry
The fact that our students, for the most part, are not going to get the science in a traditional classroom simply forced Ben and me to be very diligent about fostering student driven inquiry. If we want these experiences to stick with them their whole lives, learning has to originate with them—belong to them—rather than relying on others to motivate their interest. I wish I knew how this worked but I think it really starts when you dig deep into what sparked your own connections to nature. Sounds like suspiciously vacuous advice, and as scientists we are often reticent to get personal. Even as teachers we don’t want to talk too much about our own stories because it seems egotistical or arrogant. However, our stories and motivations matter, and even if students are going to attach to subjects in different ways, the passion comes through. I finally became honest with myself about why I wanted to be in the water and study it, and it paid off.
Finding focus: the power of a camera
The camera is an object to concentrate on, to learn about, to hang on to… and it begs the wielder to focus, to look around, and to observe. It slows down your breathing. You can’t just take most kids out and tell them to observe nature. The camera does something. I’ve had similar results from kids with microscopes; once you get them on the scope with interesting things (living things!) it’s hard to peel them away.
It isn’t long before students start to see themselves as explorers, artists, and story tellers. Surrounded by the wild and untamed, seeing that their perspective is valued and that their questions are important: these all combine to nudge them towards becoming scientists, too. Without the camera and Ben’s expert and gentle instruction, I do not think this would be possible. With the cameras, these young explorers are like the naturalists, physicists, geologists, historians at the leading edge of the scientific revolution. I urge you to read some of the American greats, leaders in freshwater science such as S.A.Forbes, and you will hear those voices echoed in the reflections of our participants.
This may or may not apply well to all teaching environments, but at the core is that students like something in their hands that gives them the license to explore, the power to tell a story or produce something original to share.
Solitude without isolation
The snorkel focuses breathing and relaxes them, once they get used to it. They learn to dive under, trusting the snorkel to connect them to what they need. I believe this fosters confidence and independence as they explore a novel environment. It also makes very clear how dependent we are on certain features of natural systems (the air) and kids generate their own metaphors for these relationships and the problems they face in society. The other primary function of the snorkel is that it prevents talking. Participants cannot interfere with each other verbally without significant effort. They start to organize their thoughts and think about what to say, to sort out what questions are most important to them. In general, this keeps our kids focused on task until something so amazingly cool happens that they jump up and spit the snorkel out to yell about how weird a sponge is, or that they found a mussel displaying. That’s when inquiry starts and science takes off.
Water: a physiological effect
Wallace J. Nichols, in his recent New York Times best-seller Blue Mind outlines in detail emerging evidence from neuroscience and other fields that being in and near water has strong positive influence on human well-being. Here, I want to limit my comments to a few observations about how this manifests for us, and how the water and equipment it necessitates are key players in our health and educational outcomes.
Not all kids are ready to take the plunge with us. Getting their face in the water is a challenge, and many of the clients struggle with anxiety issues. Once they do it, most of them love it. The mask is a bit strange at first. Peripheral vision is more or less impossible, so you are forced to look ahead. I think this helps with the photography but it also has social implications. Kids have each other on their maps constantly, and social pressures and problems are a big concern for our clients. They can act differently when trying to impress each other, and out-daring each other (for example) can escalate out of control. The mask closes off the periphery. We insist on the buddy system (an entirely different subject, but it leads to trust among kids for whom that might never have been possible). They know that they have a buddy nearby, but the mask keeps them looking at what is in front of them. They know staff are there too, so they are safe but independent. They can’t hear us but they know we are there as they explore what only they can see.
My observations here are confirmed by participant feedback. The kids often report that the water shuts out all the external ‘noise’, literal and figurative. It leads to calmness, focus, curiosity, exploration, joy. I think the combination of equipment and environment work in two complementary ways. First, the mask, snorkel, and water isolate kids (putting them in direct contact with nature without peer pressure). Second, the experiences they have bring them together and teach them how to observe and communicate the observation. Of course, this is also not an easy way to experience rivers and ice cold lakes—so shared tribulation works wonders. Once these conditions become comfortable for them, they are not only open to the natural world, observing and participating in it, but they are open to each other.
Wild places for wild experiences
Finally, and most obvious on the list of necessary elements, are places in nature to explore. We re-visit sites that they fall in love with or are more curious about to foster a deep sense of connection to special places.
The team gets more and more comfortable with the known (so recently the unknown) and their natural instinct is to explore the next place. Simultaneously they are becoming attached to their favorite natural areas while gaining the skills and desire to explore others. I think this combination of visiting a site several times while encouraging exploration establishes a good balance between taking ownership of a wild place and not being afraid to find new ones. Think about your special place, the secret fishing spot or the hill you climb to see the sunset. I worry that younger generations are not getting that, and when we help foster that in our clients we see strong positive impacts.
This program has proven for me that immersive experiences lead to scientifically curious minds, healthy bodies, and great art. Natural areas are not just subjects for scientific study. They generate the kinds of experiences needed for artistic and scientific minds. The National Park Service recognizes this and we are so thankful for their support. Wisconsin Sea Grant also has joined in supporting us explicitly to continue our exploration of the relationship between emotional engagement with aquatic systems, protecting these resources, and fostering scientific minds and mindfulness. We need wild places and we need to support the institutions that protect these places. And we need more such places in both rural and urban environments that aren’t destinations, but rather part of our lives.
Water, water everywhere, revisited
Protecting freshwater ecosystems ought to be our highest priority under the assumption that humans care about their future existence. I wrote earlier about my attraction to the ‘water, water’ pragmatism that first sank into my teenage-fogged brain thanks to Iron Maiden. In the northern Midwest, we had water everywhere but were making it undrinkable. I loved the water for other reasons, but experiences in wild places made it clearer to me how dependent we were on water. At the time, PCBs and other contaminants were making water undrinkable and fish inedible. I wanted to help change that.
It’s funny how we can know all the words to a song but not really listen. A complete account of how an underwater photography program is such an effective platform for genuine scientific learning cannot be complete until I explain what I think I got wrong about ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.’
On a Lake Superior-cold autumn day in 2014 I first saw the video documenting the initial year of the underwater photography project. It was all fresh on my mind as I hit the weight room in my garage. My four-year-old daughter likes to dance and play when I work out. That day, out of the blue she asked me about the tattered Iron Maiden poster (which is in the garage for obvious reasons). So I popped in the old tape—yes, the same tape from 1987. I didn’t want to explain any of the other songs so I painstakingly FF’d to ‘Rhyme’ for her. I started working out while she danced (who knew Iron Maiden could be a ballet? It’s actually a great idea and you heard it here first).
As she danced and I ruminated while half-heartedly setting up some deadlifts, the words slapped me in the face:
The curse it lives on in their eyes
The Mariner he wished he’d die
Along with the sea creatures
But they lived on, so did he.
And by the light of the moon
He prays for their beauty not doom
With heart he blesses them
God’s creatures all of them too.
Then the spell starts to break
The albatross falls from his neck
Sinks down like lead into the Sea
Then down in falls comes the raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin.
Iron Maiden took some liberties with the original poem by Coleridge (lines 282-291), but it is still powerful (perhaps more so if you are rocking out). Re-visiting this passage shook me up a bit as I thought about my experiences with NWP. It turns out I was the one being superficial as I tried to get others to delve. On the surface, we see that by loving the sea creatures the mariner’s curse is lifted. This alone is pretty cool for someone like me who has spent most my life studying invertebrates and at least trying to turn students’ “yuck” into “wow.” If you are not religious, there is comfort in the original poet’s version of romantic deism, and we can use it as shorthand for the natural wonder I speak of above (counter to the 1980s’ paranoia about heavy metal, Iron Maiden actually added the bit about God). If you are religious, well, then there you have it straight from Iron Maiden. Either way it goes deeper.
Many of our kids were at the very edge in terms of mental health. Their albatrosses weren’t metaphorical but had names—addiction, anxiety, or depression. In the water, I watched the albatrosses drop off, one by one, into the sea. We had one young man who was so anxious about weeds, he wouldn’t even look towards the lake. Two weeks later he was telling me to follow his lead as he cruised through a forest of milfoil to show me where he saw a smallmouth bass. The freedom he felt was real, he conquered an anxiety and will conquer more. He was unburdened that day and he will have that victory with him for his next struggles. And I think of the young woman who took several weeks to get into the idea of putting her face in the water, who had trouble having conversations without shouting or interrupting. One day—thanks to extremely talented and patient NWP staff—she suddenly just cruised down a cold rainy river, quietly exploring for hours to get some of the best photographs that I have ever seen. There are scores of other stories like this. Their troubles aren’t magically washed away, but they reach a point when interacting with nature that the troubles are not drowning them. Staff have conveyed that this leads to increased success in the rest of their experiences and healing at NWP. We are not always successful, not all kids are going to respond strongly, but far more do than do not.
I watched them smile, cooperate, communicate, make plans for the future, fall in love with the wild. As a society we make a fundamental error if we think these kids are different from us. The albatross isn’t a metaphor for any of us. If humans don’t get it together and start loving the creatures of rivers and lakes, we live cursed lives not just on the pragmatic level (having clean fresh water for life) but for our own mental health. From desert tinajas and oases to the world’s great lakes we are drawn to water to calm us, to play in, to challenge us. It took these kids, at the very brink, to drive this home to me. They hold the key to conservation and ultimately to human flourishing.
And I blessed them unaware
It is comforting that people like Coleridge have long articulated the psychological benefits of a healthy relationship to the natural world. As far back as Aristotle you have arguments that call for careful attention to the humbler animals because “each such being will reveal to us something burgeoning and beautiful” (On the Parts of Living Beings I-v). I am sure there are many other examples.
The experiences of our underwater team embody this view. Their photographs tap into the beauty, wonder, curiosity and exploration that are fundamental to scientific inquiry. If we want to cultivate scientists and explorers, we need wild places. We need to get out of the classroom and into the rivers.
Most importantly, our kids’ stories and pictures also remind us that these wild areas are necessary not only for survival or fostering science, but fundamentally for our well-being. Philosophers, poets, scientists, artists and (yes) heavy metal bands have tried to tell us over and over. My experience with NWP adds to these voices by demonstrating that the lessons are not academic: not for them, and not for any of us.