The green classroom: CEHHS partners with Detroit elementary school for lessons in sustainability

October 6, 2014

There’s no trace of the vacant building that once stood on the lot. And fumes from idling delivery trucks no longer breeze into classroom windows.

When Neinas Elementary School students purchased a vacant lot for $900, empty buildings and idling trucks gave way to rain gardens and flower beds as part of the school’s living outdoor classroom.

That classroom, it turns out, is the perfect setting for students enrolled in University of Michigan-Dearborn’s teacher education program to learn alongside elementary students.

“The space students live in is an important source for curricular information. It’s a way to ground the information you’re trying to teach them with issues that make the content authentic and connect it to their lives,” said Chris Burke, associate professor of science education, who uses the outdoor classroom to teach Introduction to Science for Elementary Teachers and Elementary Science Methods.

At Neinas Elementary School, that means learning about sustainability. Specifically, what does a sustainable southwest Detroit look like? Fifth-grade teacher Amy Lazarowicz has tackled the subject for years and connected with Burke nearly three years ago to bring UM-Dearborn students on board.

Together, the two groups of students have studied soil components and flower parts. They’ve hit crushed limestone paver when digging for rain gardens. And they’ve learned to decipher between different types of manure to determine the best way to make fertilizer.

UM-Dearborn College of Education, Health, and Human Services (CEHHS) students learn about classroom management and how to conduct experiments. But Burke hopes the lessons extend beyond basic textbook knowledge.

Through the course of the semester, he sees the role of student and educator shift a bit. This isn’t about saving Detroit, he said. It’s about learning from some of the city’s youngest residents.

“I want my students to learn from these kids. They have insights about the ecosystems of Detroit and pollution and the needs of the community that my students don’t have,” he said. “I want them to develop a deeper understanding and a more nuanced picture.”

That was the case for Zeinab Skaf.

The science education student came to Neinas to gain hands-on experience in the classroom. But she left with a better understanding of what students can teach her.

“The students at Neinas are smart, talented and motivated to learn,” Skaf said. “This experience taught me more about the city of Detroit and, more importantly, about the schools and students there.”

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