Four Success Stories

Groundswell staff scores points by filling "baskets"

During the recent Place-based Education Conference hosted by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (GLSI), guest speaker David Sobel said something that struck a chord with me: “Place-based education is the basket, not the egg.” 

In one short phrase, Sobel succinctly explained place-based education metaphorically in the context of a farmer gathering eggs in a basket. Essentially, students are the farmers. The eggs represent the lessons educators use to teach subject-area content and critical thinking skills. Students must gather and retain each “egg” in order to obtain a sufficiently broad body of knowledge. Finally, the basket represents the manner in which students go about acquiring and retaining knowledge and understanding of the world around them. 

Sobel believes that place-based education should be manifest in schools as a standard method of teaching, as opposed to an individual project or opportunity that happens only in select classrooms. 

How can schools make this paradigm shift? At Groundswell, one of the GLSI’s regional hubs, we continually encourage our teams to cultivate a school-wide culture of place-based education through which students and teachers can approach any subject at any grade level. There are many barriers—from budget cuts to administrative red tape—that can make this difficult to accomplish. Consequently, Groundswell and its community partners have developed the Groundswell School Culture tool kit to assist teachers and administrators with making systemic changes in both school culture and attitudes toward place-based education. 

Our tool kit addresses three major challenges: (1) making time for collaboration and planning (time is a valuable but extremely limited resource); (2) communicating and collaborating with community organizations, which is challenging for educators who lack experience working with partners; and (3) giving students the autonomy necessary to implement high-quality place-based experiences while still meeting curricular goals. 

At Groundswell, we are committed to making place-based education look less like individual projects and more like a school-wide effort. Groundswell is encouraging its educators to begin weaving baskets. Most who do are amazed by their students’ bountiful harvest.

— Michael Posthumus, former Groundswell Program Coordinator

Northeast Michigan students support coastal tourism development

Students in three Northeast Michigan schools got out of the classroom for three different place-based education projects to help enhance coastal tourism along northern Lake Huron. 

The Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative (NEMIGLSI), a regional hub of the GLSI, provided support to the teachers and students of these three schools as they worked to educate the community and visitors about local natural resources. 

The three projects were Alcona Community High School’s Negwegon State Park ecotourism signage project, Rogers City Middle School’s study of and outreach about threatened and endangered species in Thompson’s Harbor State Park, and Alpena High School’s contribution to a geology-focused fossil exhibit at Besser Museum. 

“My students learned the importance of working with agencies, such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the National Forest Service, and Michigan Sea Grant, to develop their knowledge of Negwegon’s unique ecosystems,” said Alcona Community High School environmental science teacher Brian Matchett, whose 26 students worked on the Negwegon State Park signage project. “As a result of this project, students gained valuable skills in communication, research, and sign development, all while meeting many of the state’s required biology content standards.”

Aquaponics system brings the outdoors into the classroom

Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative (GTSI) teachers plan projects that help their students explore and learn about the Great Lakes and local water-related issues. Their goal is to encourage students to become more engaged citizens in and environmental stewards of their communities. Most of the projects fielded by students take place in a community setting. However, during the 2010–2011 school year, students at the Grand Traverse Academy brought nature indoors to study water and its importance to agriculture. 

With a grant from the Grand Traverse Stewardship Initiative, teacher Matt Drost from Grand Traverse Academy installed an aquaponics system in his classroom so that students could learn about water, water conservation, fish biology, food chains, the growth requirements of plants, and the industry of agriculture. 

An aquaponics system works like this: Fish tanks run along one wall with planters above them. The fish tanks support goldfish. Pumps take the water (including fish waste) from the tanks up to the planters, where various vegetables, such as lettuce and beans, are growing. The plants utilize the water and the nutrients from the fish waste. Excess water is cleaned as it filters through the soil and then drips back down into the fish tanks. 

By working with an aquaponics system, students saw firsthand the importance of water recycling and understood its significance to the plants and animals in their community. Students then applied what they learned to nearby creeks, where they tested water and made scientific observations. 

Community partners included Cedar Sol Hydro Farm, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Harriett Hills Trout Farm. 

SEMIS Summer Institute showcases Detroit's social, ecological challenges

For four days, more than 25 teacher-leaders, community partners, and local activists gathered at Eastern Michigan University and in Detroit for the annual Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition (SEMIS) Summer Institute on EcoJustice Education and Community-based Learning. SEMIS is one of nine regional hubs of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative. 

The institute focused on the social and ecological history of Detroit and the visionary ways that people in communities across the city are responding to the social and ecological challenges they face. 

“Most professional development in this country takes the form of isolated workshops,” said Ethan Lowenstein, director of SEMIS. “SEMIS’ approach is to foster sustainable school-community partnerships and provide continuous support to SEMIS partners throughout the year as they help students become citizen-stewards of healthy ecological and social systems. Of course, if we as educators want to transform students’ understandings of themselves and the world, we have to engage in the same kind of learning. Our intensive summer institute provides such an opportunity.”