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Get outside: Fellowship helps K-12 educators teach students the importance of sustainability

February 14, 2023

The Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship is a program created for K-12 teachers of all disciplines interested in teaching sustainability issues while fostering and supporting links between schools, classrooms, and communities.


This article originally appeared in Michigan News.

COLEMAN, Michigan—Once a week, science literacy teacher Amy Klopf takes her sixth grade students outside for hands-on and place-based lessons. It is a special day for the group, it is "Outdoor Education Wednesday."  
Far from their classroom with different scenery and tools, the students learn about trees and logs, rocks, soil, how to use and take care of natural areas, and discuss the importance of sustainability, water cycles and much more.
"They just light up when our classes are outdoors," said Klopf, a Coleman Elementary School teacher in Midland County. "They appreciate and enjoy science better now and will always remember the experiences we do out here."
Klopf has worked as a teacher since 2001. She is a fellow—for the second time—in the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship, a program created for K-12 teachers of all disciplines interested in teaching sustainability issues, while fostering and supporting links between schools, classrooms and communities. 
"This program opens your eyes," she said. "Just the idea of sustainability and what our kids can do to better their environment and their living and realize that it's for future generations. It's not just for now."
This fourth cohort has 23 educators who teach primarily in mid-Michigan, including Arenac, Bay, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw counties.
"With a place-based curriculum, the students realize that what they are learning in class can be applied in their backyard, what they're doing when they get older, or all of a sudden, they realize this is the job they want. This opportunity puts that in perspective," said Klopf, whose first participation was virtual two years ago during COVID.
This year, Klopf's students will create trails in the forest lab, located behind their school. 
"Then they will be the leaders that bring other classes out to share this experience with them. They learn so much more by teaching others," she said. 
Backyard forest lab 
Surrounded by peers, 11-year-old Mackenzie Staley is one of the most excited students at the forest lab.
"I've always been connected to the outdoors, so getting to do science out here has made me want to learn more things," she said. "I am observing and discovering new things. I didn't notice them on a daily basis walking around the woods. But I'm more focused on it now."
One of Staley's favorite parts of the outdoor education program is becoming a multiplier effect student.
"Because of being out here, we're thinking about making a naturalists club," she said. "We want to fix up the trails and make it so that we can bring younger kids out here so they can like science, too."
The program
The fellowship is the first program of the Andrew N. Liveris Institute, a partnership among the University of Michigan School of Education's Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research, the Dow Company Foundation and Delta College. 
Since 2019, 63 fellows from 33 schools have been selected. Additionally, 34 organizations, businesses, agencies and institutions have elected to participate as community partners, helping to lend local context and content knowledge to teacher sustainability units. 
Fellows receive professional development sessions, including 18 hours of virtual asynchronous professional development for three weeks and up to 12 hours of in-person workshops and events. They also receive a $2,000 stipend and mini-grant opportunities to support sustainability unit implementation in the classroom. 
"Sustainability education is so important and teachers need help designing education that is going to engage their students to take on sustainability," said Emily Schaller, program manager for the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship. "It is a big interdisciplinary topic, it fits into every grade level, in every subject area, and they aren't necessarily trained in teaching that."
Schaller said the program's mission is to ensure K-12 teachers have the expertise to teach sustainability in all areas. 
"Without sustainability lessons, we aren't going to create sustainability leaders for the future," she said. "Sometimes education is provided in a way that separates us from our place. We learn things that are happening far away when the community around us offers so much to learn about and from. We want students to tackle real-world challenges and engage in their community." 
A community partner since 2019, Jenn Kirts, director of programs at Chippewa Nature Center, has worked with different teachers in several capacities around sustainability.
"It is just a perfect fit for us, considering place-based education is also a direct fit with our mission," she said. "Our goal is to connect everyone to nature. We want to connect to all the communities around us. This program allows us to be in the schools and serve the students, and then we become familiar with the families. It's also fantastic to design customized programs; it helps us grow as professionals."
Another one of Klopf's science students, Max Imusplace, also counts the days for "Outdoor Education Wednesdays'' weekly. Besides getting some fresh air, he enjoys walking around the woods to observe different vegetation, tree species, animals and insects. 
"There was this branch that broke off of a tree and on the underside was this black stuff growing on it," he said. "It was some fungus. So I actually get to see many things I've learned in the classroom. 
"A lot of the time, I'll hear something that will go through one ear and come out the other. I don't remember it. But then, when I'm out in nature, I pay more attention to everything. Everything feels different. It feels much more real, more embracing."