The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), General Motors and school districts in Southeast Michigan have come together to give students the opportunity to make self-designed environmental impact.
Anita Singh, national field educator for NWF, manages the organization’s Eco-Green program, a subdivision of EcoSchools U.S. Projects facilitated at each of the program’s 20 schools reflect environmental issues local to the area, Singh said. Hamtramck High School, for instance, does their work at the Bandhu Gardens in Detroit.
“At Hamtramck High School, [the group of teachers and students] is actually out here in the gardens, building raised beds, growing food for the community, helping offset rainwater that would normally go into the sewer system here in Detroit, because we have a lot of issues with flooding here as climate changes,” Singh said.
Singh said the communities in which the participating schools reside also determine what projective initiatives are. For example, many students who attend Hamtramck come from Polish and Bangladeshi immigrant families who keep gardens for traditional dishes, Singh said. Students in the NWF program can then transfer skills to and from their home experience.
“Foods can be shared within different cultures. I’ve seen fruits and vegetables I’ve never tasted in my whole life, but I’ve been introduced to them when it came to this garden,” said Hamtramck student Tasmi Chowdhury. “It’s just a really nice way to share our diversity.”
Students at Hamtramck High School have organized their NWF-facilitated program under a student group called “LEAP” (Leaders in Environmental Awareness and Protection). Chowdhury is the club’s vice president and she said LEAP’s biggest successes have included tree planting along roads that border Hamtramck and a public service video about mask littering amid the pandemic.
Bill Albrecht, faculty adviser of LEAP and Hamtramck science teacher, said the students have always powered the projects independently.
“This group of students is incredibly self-driven. And they are the reason to keep teaching,” Albrecht said. “I’m just following along and watching them like ‘Here’s some tools,’ ‘Here’s some wood,’ ‘Here’s some dirt.’”
In order to be considered an EcoSchool, teachers must incorporate climate change literacy into the classroom, which Albrecht said his students have been proposing solutions for since they entered high school. Each school must also perform a school energy or sustainability audit. So Albrecht said his job, as a teacher of required 10th grade biology and 11th grade physics, is to bridge the afterschool program with in-school programming.
An example of in-class programming, Hamtramck partners with Friends of the Rouge to raise 200 fertilized salmon eggs through the winter and release the grown fish into the Huron River once temperatures are warm enough, according to Albrecht. Hamtramck’s participation in EcoSchools has reshaped the way Albrecht approaches the classroom, with more resources available for real-life experiences.
“There’s a huge divide in conservation between the haves and the have-nots — people who don’t have access to green space, typically. I feel like some of my goal is to interrupt that lack of access and to try to make the barriers to getting outside as low as possible,” Albrecht said. “I’ve asked a lot of our district: Can you get us buses to go to Belle Isle? Can you get us buses to Huron Metropark? I’m about to ask for a camping trip.”
In addition to the student infrastructure, Albrecht said being part of the larger Eco Green program allows advising teachers to make connections and troubleshoot project operations. Bigger schools and iterations of the program, for example, can help Hamtramck’s projects financially or bring LEAP students into bigger projects.
“Some of these other teachers are such veterans and are so interconnected with the community that listening to them describe how their classroom runs — for me — is pulling [back] the curtain,” Albrecht said. “That’s a level of mastery that I can strive towards.”
Meanwhile, at the Middle School Mathematics Science Technology Center — (MS)2TC — of Warren Consolidated Schools, the schoolyard has become an experimental field for high-performing STEM students to manifest concepts they study in class.
“We’re trying to increase biodiversity in this field and also trying to make use of the stormwater runoff,” seventh-grade teacher Tuyen Duddles said. “During the course of the seventh grade science year, they learn about our local watershed, and how what we do in our daily lives affects the health of that watershed.”
Jennifer Maiorana, sustainability engagement analyst at General Motors (GM), said her team recently renovated a greenhouse next to Ms. Duddles’ classroom, which students will be able to access. Maiorana said she and other coordinators from GM have a physical presence at Eco-Green schools.
“It’s great to see the students glow when they’re clearly passionate about what they’re doing,” Maiorana said.
With GM’s corporate sustainability goals in mind, Maiorana helps students decide what projects to pursue as part of the program. In line with the biodiversity initiative at (MS)2TC, Maiorana said the GM Global Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, converted a parking lot into a pollinator garden to attract butterflies to the area.
From the largest projects to the smallest, it’s all about making connections between young people and the land they live on. Emily Staugaitis, co-founder of Bandhu Gardens, said that connection is one of the best parts of working with students in the gardens.
“To be able to buy the land and steward the land in that way and introduce a next generation … to kind of keep that curiosity alive and remind them that it’s a cool thing to do — it’s an amazing thing,” she said.
This video project was produced in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation.