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Stories of Impact

Learning Initiatives

Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary Develops Tomorrow’s Environmental Stewards

“By exposing students to the incredible assets of the Sanctuary and the Great Lakes, we can inspire them to take actions that will have a positive impact on their lives, the environment, and their communities."

Jeff Gray, Superintendent, Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary

Alpena, MI (April 2022)“The best way to get someone to protect something is to get them to love it and the best way to get them to love it is for them to experience it.” That’s one of the mottos driving the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (The Sanctuary), says Superintendent, Jeff Gray. Located in Alpena, the 4,300 square-mile, federally-protected marine sanctuary is the nation’s first freshwater sanctuary and contains over 200 of the world’s best-preserved historic shipwrecks.

One of the hallmarks of the Sanctuary’s programming is hands-on, experiential learning for K-12 students. The organization is committed to getting students in, on or under the Great Lakes to provide a close-up understanding of the majesty of what’s  in their backyards, inspiring youth to become better environmental stewards.

The Walters Family Foundation’s three-year grant supports the Sanctuary’s development of meaningful place-based S.T.E.A.M. experiences for students of Northeast Michigan. The programming focuses on five areas: Climate Change, Marine Technology and Underwater Robotics, History and Archaeology, Ocean and Great Lakes Science and Stewardship, Arts and Culture.  New programming will allow students to access the Sanctuary through the North Point Peninsula, four miles of shoreline with some of the region’s most important coastal wetlands and wildlife habitat. Protecting this shoreline has been a joint project of the Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy.

Students can learn about stewarding the Great Lakes onboard the Lady Michigan.Download a high-resolution version of this photo.

“The Great Lakes are spectacular, but these amazing resources are hidden beneath waves,” says Gray. “In our programs students get under the water and experience it first-hand.” Students do things like use robots to release fish, sample Lake Huron water for invasive species and collect real-life aquatic data. They truly become citizen scientists who harness the vast resources of the Sanctuary – from the floating laboratory of the 65-foot Lady Michigan glass bottom boat to the shorelines of the North Point Peninsula to the interactive exhibits of the Maritime Heritage Center. Student have opportunities to virtually dive underwater to explore historic shipwrecks and traipse undeveloped shorelines, wetlands, and pine forests.

Research shows that outdoor education goes a long way in developing a child’s body, mind, and spirit. Students who struggle in a classroom setting often thrive when learning outdoors. Place-based education takes that approach even further by connecting the learning experience to actual challenges taking place in the community as identified by the students.

“One of the unintended consequences of these place-based programs is that students begin to think about their community differently,” says Gray. “They begin to care more deeply about their local environment and look for opportunities to protect and improve it. That’s exactly the future we hope for.”


The 448-acre Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve contains 40 known historic shipwrecks. Photo courtesy of NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.Download a high-resolution version of this photo.