Water Researchers Give Back Through Unique Program for Grandparents and Grandchildren

Each summer for the past six years, Bill Sonzogni and Jim Peterson have been teaching parts of a limnology (the study of lakes) class to grandparents and their grandchildren. The class is part of the popular Grandparents University, which is offered by the Wisconsin Alumni Association and in which Wisconsin Sea Grant participates. What these students might not realize is that, between Sonzogni and Peterson, they are on the receiving end of nearly 100 years of experience in water issues.

The two colleagues met in 1967 during water chemistry class in graduate school at UW-Madison. They hit it off, had careers and retired. When additional instructors were being sought for a “limnology major” for Grandparents University, they decided to volunteer their time.

“I have grandkids of my own and I thought the program would be fun – a chance to give back,” said Sonzogni, professor emeritus in environmental chemistry and technology. “Jim and I have known each other for a long time and it just seemed like a natural thing to do.”

“I think it’s worked out well,” said Peterson, professor emeritus in biological systems engineering, “particularly the dissolved oxygen part of the class. The kids like adding drops to the water sample, mixing chemicals, watching for color changes and shaking things up. It’s fun to see the range of kids and the way they interact with their grandparents,” he said.

Peterson spent much of his career in the Environmental Resources Center of UW-Extension. As a statewide water quality specialist, he became a groundwater expert, and he uses that knowledge for the class. After students are introduced to each other, and before they do the dissolved oxygen testing, Peterson demonstrates the water cycle and how groundwater fits into it with an 18-by-30-inch model that’s reminiscent of an ant farm.

“I’ve never seen anyone run the groundwater model like Jim Peterson,” said Kathy Kline, Wisconsin Sea Grant education outreach specialist who helps instruct the Great Lakes portion of the program. “I think he could do it with his eyes closed.”

Another notable volunteer instructor is John Magnuson, director emeritus of the Center for Limnology. He conducts the field trip part of the class, which involves taking students out on Lake Mendota aboard the 28-foot research boat Limnos.

“We are so grateful to these professors for sharing their time and expertise by volunteering for Grandparents University,” Kline said. “It’s terrific that their dedication to public outreach brings them out of retirement to help with this program.”

The limnology major is hosted by the UW-Center for Limnology and Wisconsin Sea Grant. A few years ago, Sea Grant took on the organizational duties for the center. This effort is led by Anne Moser, senior special librarian with Wisconsin’s Water Library. Moser coordinates seven instructors who teach 40 students and as many grandparents each summer during a two-day program. Sea Grant’s Fisheries Outreach Specialist Titus Seilheimer and former Aquatic Invasive Species Outreach Specialist Tim Campbell have also helped instruct the course.

“We get some interesting questions from the grandparents about different Great Lakes issues, so the grandparents are learning, too,” said Kline. “It a great opportunity to reach both the younger and older generations, and it’s one of my favorite programs that we support.”

Both Peterson and Sonzogni have enrolled their own grandchildren in Grandparents University. Peterson’s grandson took the biotechnology major and Sonzogni had grandsons in the physics and Italian majors this year.

Grandparents University, which originated at UW-Madison, has spread to sixteen other universities over the years. To learn more about the limnology major, watch this video from 2008, which features Magnuson.