On Nov. 19, one day before the first snow storm of the season, 33 students put on gloves and picked up shovels to begin work on a duck habitat behind Flint Southwestern High School.

The 7th through 12th graders, which included a group with special needs students, cleaned up trash and dug out grass to prepare the site for the upcoming spring. The 150’ x 20’ site, began as little more than a circle of overgrown grass but as Guy, an 11th grader, explained, the students dug holes so that snow would accumulate over the winter and be retained as water for the ducks next season. He said they wanted the ducks to have a permanent home.

cp dirt

photo: Lindsay Stoddard

Families of ducks have been nesting in the high school’s interior courtyard. Previously, the students created a habitat in the courtyard for the ducks but the space is too small to nest in so it led to problems. Linda Heck and Kim Hatfield are the two teachers which have been leading these place based education projects with their students. Ducks can have up to 12 chicks at a time and over the last few years, Kim and her mother have had to transport the ducks out of the courtyard to a nearby river, one family at a time.

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Jacquie Richardson has been teaching in the Flint Community Schools for 22 years but she has seen a change in her students since implementing place based education projects three years ago. Now, her students are more engaged than ever before and taking charge of their own education.

Richardson began working with a group of Freeman Elementary third and fourth graders three years ago. The students grew their own cucumbers in the classroom and made them into pickles.

The following year, energized by their previous success, the same group of students wanted to expand their project. Richardson said her students wanted to do more than just grow vegetables so they explored how to grow bigger and more unique produce in the classroom. They settled on growing microgreens. The students were able to sell their microgreens at the Flint Farmers’ Market, which had the added benefit of providing them with a lesson in economics. By the time, she taught a unit about economics later in the semester, she said her students already grasped all of the concepts because of their previous business experience.

This most recent year has been the most inspiring yet. Richardson partnered with Flint’s Stockton Center at Spring Grove and helped her students, who are currently in sixth grade, construct a community garden onsite. The octagon-shaped garden was themed and produced vegetables and herbs to make pizza including Roma tomatoes, oregano, thyme, green peppers and mild peppers. The students visit their garden four times a year and after reading about the loss of Monarch Butterflies decided they also wanted to built a butterfly garden at Stockton Center as well. When students visit the home, they spend the entire school day there, completing both their place based work and the regular daily curriculum assignments. She said students enjoy doing schoolwork on the porch and down by the creek. The partnership has also allowed for students to get history lessons from the building’s caretakers and she said some of the kids have become “mini-docents,” giving their own tours when they visit the property.

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Below are some online place-based education resources for teachers. These ideas are very low-to-no-cost and are meant to support curriculum you are already covering in class! These mini place-based education exercises introduce students to another learning environment that builds connections for them between what happens outside of the classroom and with in-class exercises.


Example 1: Journey North activities

Journey North is a free, Internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change. For example, students discover that sunlight drives all living systems and they learn about the dynamic ecosystem that surrounds and connects them.

The site offers more than 40 activities and lesson plans for teachers to engage their students through place-based and traditional classroom settings. It also features live cams of exotic animals in their natural habitats and a free phone app for teachers to share data.

One great seasonal project is the Tulip Test Garden. This allows teachers to use the planting and growing cycles of spring to explore the changing seasons. Participants are encouraged to document their location and when the tulips emerge and bloom on Journey North’s website and compare results with other classes across the country. Visit http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/tulips/HowTo.html for more information.

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There will be a ribbon cutting ceremony June 4 for an outdoor classroom designed and built by Beecher ninth graders (class of 2016) last year. The outdoor space is located in a previously unused area between the Moses Lacy Field House and Beecher Administration Building on the Beecher 9GA campus, 1020 W. Coldwater Road in Mt. Morris.

M’Lis Bartlett, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Justice, led the design process with students and allowed the entire class to vote on what the final space would look like. This process included teaching students Beecher history and allowing them to explore the natural environment around the school. The classroom space also acts as an alternative lunch space and gives students and families a place to relax before basketball games.

During summer 2013, Carrera, a summer job placement program, hired some of the ninth graders to help transform the concrete space into a landscaped classroom which includes benches and tables made from urban Ash tree lumber and recycled pieces of concrete.

This year’s ninth graders (class of 2017) planted flowers and vegetables in the space. A retractable awning and water catchment barrel have also been installed.

The program was funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation, a University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship grant, and the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative- Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

A reception and press conference will begin at 5 p.m. The ribbon cutting will take place at 5:45 p.m.



It was bright, sunny and one of those rare 35 degree Michigan winter days. It had the makings of a great day, and a great day it was.

We had once again been invited by our friends at Kings Karate Harvesting Earth Educational Farm to do some hard manual labor but also have fun. Arriving in greenhouse number two we swept up hay and dirt before our host arrived. It was an easy, simple job, but surprisingly a very dusty one.

Photo: Charles Simon

Photo: Charles Simon

photo: Charles Simon

photo: Charles Simon

When we finished we were covered in dirt and hay filled-dust. We learned two things: we were not properly dressed and dust tastes horrible.

We completed our first task and soon after were greeted by University of Michigan-Flint students, who we quickly became friends with, and our host Dora King. It only took five minutes before Dora had us deep in dirt and snow. It was during this time that work turned into fun and fun turned into long lasting friendships.

The work done by seven Beecher High School students and nine UM-Flint students never did feel like work. We moved old gardening tools and utensils. We raked, tilled, and made months of old soil ready for planting. Some of us even shoveled snow.

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photo: Charles Simon

photo: Charles Simon

On a cold and cloudy Monday morning, twenty students from Beecher’s Ninth Grade Academy and five chaperones boarded a bus to the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) headquarters in Detroit, MI. These students, all ninth graders, took their first steps in becoming instruments of social change in the Beecher community. The bus drive was filled with teenage laughter, but also curious minds.

Through the University of Michigan-Flint University Outreach’s Discovering Place program, Beecher students have been beautifying their school grounds and becoming more environmentally active. With place-and-community-based education students are stepping away from traditional text-book instruction to become more socially involved in the Beecher community. Having had the opportunity to tackle social issues relative to their community, this was a trip to show them they are not alone in their endeavors and to think big even in small places.

When we arrived at EMEAC, we were greeted by Sonya Green or “Mama Sanaa” as she instructed us to call her. We followed her down hallways, through wide open rooms, and up several flights of stairs until we reached a small green, blue and yellow room. This storage room turned classroom, it was revealed to us, had never been used until now. These Beecher students had left their first mark.

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photo: Charles Simon

photo: Charles Simon

Snow underneath our boots and sneakers, gusty winds piercing through our layered clothing, and nineteen degree weather sounds intimidating to most. Not for nineteen Beecher Ninth Grade Academy students; it was their playground.

For several weeks these students had been exposed to various elements surrounding social and community engagement. King’s Karate Harvesting Earth Educational Farm was looking for young minds to assist in preparing their greenhouses for the winter season. These Discovering Place students, whom are sponsored by the University of Michigan – Flint Outreach office, heard the call and immediately took arms to help.

Inside greenhouse number two we were greeted by Master Dora King. We listened intently to instruction, and sipped on delicious homemade hot cocoa. With nineteen students and several adults we divided into three groups. Group one stayed inside to learn about compost and to spread it across the numerous vegetable gardens. Group two and three on the other hand were stationed outside.
These two groups braved the cold conditions to engage in: picking up trash, moving bundles of corn stalks, stacking wheel barrels, lumber and so much more. Master King’s husband, Grandmaster Jackie King, provided one impressive outside fire to warm up our bodies. It became evidently clear manual labor and cold weather was a non-issue.

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It didn’t matter to Patty Hillaker that her science students went to an alternative high school, she wanted to give them hope and the best education possible.

Hillaker, an UM-Flint alumni, was inspired by the place-based education and grant writing training she received through the Discovering PLACE hub of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative to develop her own project for Beecher’s Riley Adult/Alternative Education Center. She called her program, Project E.a.r.t.h., which stands for Environmental awareness reaching teen homes.

Over several years, Hillaker was able to bring a series of projects and experiences to her students that taught them about their larger connections to the natural world.

This project consisted of planting raised gardens, an urban bird study, salmon in the classroom, bottle cap murals, school clean ups, clothing and book drives, and year-round recycling of batteries, paper, ink cartridges, glass and bottle caps.

In addition, Hillaker’s students did an audit of the school’s energy consumption and asked what they could do to cut energy costs.

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Want to find out more about place-based education?

Visit our Discovering PLACE website to view the PBE video series and other related resources, produced by University Outreach at the University of Michigan-Flint.

The series includes:

Principles of Place-Based Education,

Building School-Community Partnerships,

PBE and Sustainable Communities,

Designing Place-Based Education Projects,

Authentic Assesment of Student Achievement,

Working Outdoors with Students,

And Connecting PBE to Curriculum Standards.

Go to http://bit.ly/OlyQ32 to watch the videos or learn how to earn SCECHs (formerly SB-CEUs) for completing the series.