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Emily Schaller talks about introducing teachers and kids to place-based sustainability education through the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship (DITF)

August 06, 2020

Emily Schaller, Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship (DITF) Program coordinator, discussed place-based sustainability education in the “Making the Case for Sustainability” webinar hosted by the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS).  Schaller was joined by professor Rebecca D. Hardin and graduate student Allyson Wiley (both from SEAS). 


Schaller works at the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research (CEDER), managing the partnership between Dow Company Foundation, the University of Michigan, and Delta College. DITF trains and supports secondary teachers from all disciplines in Michigan's Arenac, Bay, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland, and Saginaw counties to design and enact place-based, sustainability-focused learning units in their classrooms. “This program serves middle and high school students in six surrounding counties. Teachers are offered a stipend, mini-grants for their classroom, and professional development for learning about sustainability and place-based education. CEDER supports them throughout the school year to teach a unit centered around these themes,” said Schaller.

“It’s very educator-centered,” added professor Rebecca D. Hardin (SEAS) during the webinar. “This program respects pilot scale logic, where we try this in small groups, and when it works well, we are able to address a lot of problems, like getting sustainability curriculum into classrooms that we are teaching more conventionally.” 

The first cohort of teachers participated in professional development that modeled an activity that they could do with their students: the teachers conducted a “trash census,” where they mapped and weighed the trash they collected along the Saginaw River. During their initial two-day professional development experience, teachers also had the opportunity to interact with guest speakers from industry, education, and non-profits who spoke about sustainability. 

Teachers also met with community partners to see how they can enact sustainability learning within their classrooms. “Teachers really valued being able to meet face-to-face with potential partners and having those conversations. The goal of the program is to get teachers to involve their communities in their classrooms and to reach out and make those connections with other voices, so that students can work on actual issues in their community and gain some leadership skills,” said Schaller.

“This year, it is all online, and we are still sharing ways about how we can integrate partners into the classroom and how students can do site investigations from their homes to gain similar experiences,” she added. “I think there is some potential since outdoor collaborations are safer than indoor collaborations due to COVID-19, and maybe there is some possibility for continuing with some outdoor activities.” 

The project’s emphasis on interdisciplinary teams enables them to take on larger projects and expand topics within the various subject areas. “This builds momentum within a school as well,” remarked Schaller, who added that the interdisciplinary aspect of this work allows students to look at one issue from multiple angles, cementing the topic for students as they learn about it in multiple classrooms.

SEAS graduate student Julia Glassman and SEAS and SOE dual enroll graduate student Allyson Wiley prepared a case study of one of the first fellows’ experiences. The resources they collected include presentations, teacher reflections, activities, and documentation of student projects and artifacts. “I am really excited about sharing these resources and our efforts across schools because it will create more excitement around it,” said Schaller.

Through this work, explained Hardin, they are aiming to make better integrations between sustainability education and environmental justice across various grade levels. “It’s so exciting,” she stated, “that we can continue building those bridges.”

This year’s fellowship cohort kicks off on August 5th with a 3-week online professional development series.