Great Lakes literacy is something Steve Stewart takes seriously

Steve Stewart has taught Great Lakes literacy lessons to thousands of schoolchildren over the years. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

Steve Stewart has taught Great Lakes literacy lessons to thousands of schoolchildren over the years. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

In 2016, the National Sea Grant College Program is celebrating its 50 years of putting science to work for America’s coastal communities.

Sea Grant is a federal-state partnership that turns research into action by supporting science-based, environmentally sustainable practices that ensure coastal communities remain engines of economic growth in a rapidly changing world. There are 33 programs across the country working to help build and grow innovative businesses along America’s oceans and Great Lakes, protect against environmental destruction and natural disasters, and train the next generation of leaders.

Established in 1969, Michigan Sea Grant, is a collaboration between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. We offer research, education and community outreach on topics such as aquatic invasive species, coastal development, commercial and sports fishing, and environmental stewardship for youth.

Our MSU Extension educators live and work in coastal communities around Michigan. We celebrate their hard work and take this opportunity to introduce each of them during this anniversary year.

Steve Stewart IMG_0612 copySteve Stewart, located in Macomb County and serving the seven coastal counties in southeast and east Michigan from Monroe through Tuscola, has been an Extension Educator since 1977, when he and Charles Pistis were hired as the first field-based Michigan Sea Grant outreach staff members at Michigan State University. Previously, the program had been based solely at the University of Michigan, with one field staff member—Tom Kelly, who later founded the Inland Seas Education Association—working in northwest Michigan.

Steve received his undergraduate degree in zoology from Miami University, but quickly realized he’d need a graduate degree in order to work in a profession allowing him to pursue his fascination with the world of water. Before heading southwest to Texas A&M University, where he received his M.S. in Marine Resources Management, he began SCUBA diving and explored some of the well-known shipwrecks of Lake Huron, which proved to be directly relevant in his Extension career.

What made you decide to be an Extension Educator?

Steve first learned about Sea Grant while a graduate student. Texas A&M University was among the first Sea Grant programs established, and he liked the research-outreach networks that Sea Grant developed. His graduate program was multidisciplinary, and that fit well with the breadth of topics addressed by the outreach side of Sea Grant. And the fact that his graduation came just before the first Michigan Sea Grant Extension positions were created provided an ideal opportunity.

How has Michigan Sea Grant made a difference over the years?

Looking back at programming successes throughout his career, Steve highlights:

  • the cold water near-drowning research that led to statewide training for emergency medical professionals, with resulting protocol changes that continue to save lives every year;
  • development of the Thumb Area and Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserves in southern Lake Huron, which led to enhanced tourism and artifact preservation;
  • development of computer models to help marina owners determine the profitability of facility development/expansion, and help coastal communities assess the feasibility of various waterfront development options;
  • counseling shoreline property owners about the realities of living with fluctuating Great Lakes water levels, and developing software tools to guide them in choosing best practices for protecting their coastal property and structures;
  • helping to create the 4H Great Lakes & Natural Resources Camp, which has provided teens with an opportunity to experience and learn about the lakes while developing leadership skills since it began in1983;
  • development of the Great Lakes Education Program, which has served more than 105,000 learners from nearly 300 schools in southeast Michigan since 1991;
  • creation of Summer Discovery Cruises to provide a way for the public to learn about the Great Lakes;
  • working with regional colleagues to develop COSEE Great Lakes (Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence) and serving as the outreach/education member on the Great Lakes Observing System developmental committee;
  • and the post-COSEE development of the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, through which educators are provided with career-changing professional development opportunities.

What challenges does your area of the state face as you look to the future?

The Great Lakes are among Michigan’s greatest assets, so you would expect Great Lakes literacy and stewardship in the Great Lakes State to be high. Unfortunately this is not the case. The next generation of decision-makers needs to be better prepared to address important Great Lakes resource management issues. Michigan Sea Grant will continue to meet this need by engaging students, their teachers and the public in opportunities such as the Great Lakes Education Program, 4-H Great Lakes & Natural Resources Camp, the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, and our Summer Discovery Cruises.

Aquatic invasive species and their many impacts on the Great Lakes will continue to be a challenge, and Michigan Sea Grant will continue to work toward reducing the introduction of new species and mitigating the impacts of those already present.

Do you have any advice for students who might want to pursue a career with an environmental focus?

For students interested in careers with an environmental focus, Steve recommends first becoming informed about the diverse career options that exist. Start with resources such as Marine Careers: A Sea Grant guide to Ocean Opportunities and Build a network of contacts in the fields that most interest you as you develop the necessary knowledge and skills for your future career. And work hard, whether engaged in a university degree program or advanced technology training, to make your goal a reality.

If you could get people to follow just one piece of conservation advice what would it be?

The Great Lakes belong to all of us collectively, and we all share a responsibility to be good stewards of these incredible natural resources.