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Place-based Education Brings Up the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards
Think back to when you were in school. “You probably never saw a textbook that mentioned your home town. But a lot of the concepts and ideas in textbooks are out there for you to learn about in your own community,” says Mary Whitmore, program coordinator of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI), which funds eight regional hubs for ‘place-based education’ in Michigan.
The GLSI’s hubs facilitate community-based environmental stewardship projects and other educational activities that provide K-12 students with opportunities for hands-on, real world learning experiences during the school day. The hubs work directly with K-12 teachers and representatives of local service groups, institutions of higher education, government entities, and other types of organizations, all of whom have ponied up to the GLSI’s ever-growing stable of community partners.
Teachers and students work on so many different types of stewardship issues that it is “hard to summarize them all in a single sound byte,” notes Whitmore. Each GLSI hub “addresses the environmental stewardship needs of the local communities it serves,” she explains. The specific nature of the work differs from place to place, which ends up fulfilling the inherent meaning of the term ‘place-based education.’
However, it is possible to list a few of the topics that students have addressed in the three years that the GLSI has been at bat. These young citizens have learned about water quality and watershed protection, food systems and gardening, health and nutrition, land use issues, local wildlife and invasive species, and cleanup and restoration methods. Sometimes their projects are strongly rooted in science, and other times they cut across several subject areas, including mathematics, language arts, social studies, and the fine arts. Students have worked with a wide range of community partners, from local nature preserves, farms and museums, to conservancy groups, community foundations, municipalities and government agencies, and beyond.
Depending on where they live, students do different community-based stewardship projects. For example, Whitehall Middle School students residing at the shore of Lake Michigan protected nearby Bush Creek from pollution by building a rain garden (facilitated by the West Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, the GLSI hub in Muskegon). On the other side of the state, urban-dwelling middle school students at Hope of Detroit Academy learned what it takes to recycle tires into doormats by working with the Department of Public Works and Cass Community Social Services (facilitated by another GLSI hub, the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition).
One large piece of the puzzle that GLSI hubs snap into place is “sustained professional development for teachers,” with an emphasis on the word sustained, according to Whitmore. Most of the hubs offer educators summer institutes, follow-up meetings during the school year, and individual consultations.
What all of the hubs have in common is that they promote and support the GLSI’s definition of place-based education in schools and communities. “The point of place-based education is not simply to refer to the local environment or the local community: you could do that by simply showing kids some pictures of their town during class and leave it at that,” Whitmore explains. “Just showing them pictures doesn’t get the kids out into the community, where they can explore and ask questions about it,” she says. Instead, Whitmore thinks that the GLSI’s “hands-on, student-powered” projects engage kids in real world activities and let the younger generation know what it feels like to take ownership of the work they do and make a positive contribution to community life.
Since forming in 2007, the GLSI has designated eight previously existing organizations as GLSI hubs and plans to add more in the future. “We’ve tried to award grants to organizations that are already doing some kind of environmental education, so that we’re not starting from square one. We want to build on the capacity and the relationships that those organizations already have, help community partners build their capacity for community outreach, and in these ways make the best use of our funds,” Whitmore says.
Although GLSI hubs do not literally teach students how to fish, the old saying still rings true. Firstly, the GLSI’s origin story certainly involves fish. In 2007, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust launched and funded the GLSI to help fulfill the trust’s intended purpose—to make up for fish losses and people’s loss of access to Lake Michigan due to the operation of the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant. The trust was established in 1996, as part of a settlement with Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison, which, in a sense, has turned lemons into a lemonade stand that doles out funds that mitigate and compensate for these losses. The GLSI is funded primarily by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, with additional funding from the Wege Foundation, the Frey Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation, and several community foundations.
Secondly, it all comes back to fish because “a lot of the basic principles and problem-solving skills that our GLSI students are learning apply to many areas of the environment,” according to Whitmore. Ultimately, GLSI programs “give students the knowledge and problem-solving skills they need to become active stewards of the environment,” regardless of what particular area of study interests them the most. “Some students may pursue careers in natural resources or science, mathematics, or technology because of the positive experiences they’ve had through the GLSI,” she explains.
Rather than literally teaching kids how to catch fish, the GLSI is giving them opportunities to fish for solutions to real world environmental problems. “We help students gain the skills and knowledge that their generation is going to need to help protect and conserve natural resources,” Whitmore says.
GLSI’s three-year progress report is due to the Great Lakes Fishery Trust this November. As the GLSI wraps up its first phase of work, Whitmore is confident that the trust will renew funding for the GLSI for another round. That would involve adding more regional hubs and extending the impact of exisiting hubs and the GLSI as a whole. Whitmore sees a bright future ahead for the GLSI. “As the initiative and its regional hubs mature,” she says, “the GLSI can play a pivotal role in the state and in the Great Lakes basin to advance place-based education that leads to environmental stewardship.”
(University of Michigan-Flint)
GRAND LEARNING NETWORK
(Michigan State University)
(Grand Traverse Conservation District)
(Grand Valley State University)
(Western Upper Peninsula Center for Science, Mathematics and Environmental Education)
NORTHEAST MICHIGAN GREAT LAKES STEWARDSHIP INITIATIVE
(Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan)
SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN STEWARDSHIP COALITION
(Eastern Michigan University)
WEST MICHIGAN GREAT LAKES
(Muskegon Area Intermediate School District)
For more information on the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiataive or to become involved in the effort, visit www.glstewardship.org.
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info.