AAPS Updates

In Ann Arbor, outdoors becomes classroom for kids

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

Want to tell Dave Szczygiel to take a hike?

He’s likely to do just that. The Ann Arbor district’s environmental education consultant can be found most any weekday with a group of students visiting one of many area parks, wetlands and waterways.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Environmental Consultant Dave Szczygiel leads Lakewood Elementary fourth-graders across a bridge at Waterloo as they look for signs of decomposition in the woods.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Environmental Consultant Dave Szczygiel leads Lakewood Elementary fourth-graders across a bridge at Waterloo as they look for signs of decomposition in the woods.

As he likes to say, “my classroom is out here.”

On this day, he dips into his treasure chest of assorted dried fungi, antlers and laminated magazine clippings about outdoor adventures and calls upon his years of knowledge as a teacher and naturalist to keep the attention of a busload of Lakewood Elementary School fourth-graders.

They were headed for the Discovery Center – and the wooded paths – at the 23,000-acre Waterloo State Recreation Area west of Ann Arbor. “Who knows what FBI stands for?” he queries. In his line of work, it’s not a widely known federal agency, but “fungus, bacteria and invertebrates,” he tells students.

– Lakewood Elementary School fourth-graders look at a set of antlers as part of their environmental studies. Here, they are on a field trip to Waterloo State Recreation Area.

– Lakewood Elementary School fourth-graders look at a set of antlers as part of their environmental studies. Here, they are on a field trip to Waterloo State Recreation Area.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools has had an Environmental Education program since 1959, founded by William B. Stapp with the help of Maxine Smith Miles, according to information from the district.

The Ann Arbor program took off with the dedication of Stapp who wrote lessons plans for every grade level, said teacher Bill Browning who succeeded Stapp to run the program in 1968. Browning explained that Michigan was one of the leading states when environmental education first came on the scene and Ann Arbor’s K-12 program was the first of its kind in the country, according to district history.

“It was very well received, even though it wasn’t inclusive of all classes,” Browning recalled. “By 1962, it had been integrated with the curriculum. The real secret of the success of this program is they got it into the curriculum as an accepted part.”

Browning said he enjoyed all of the student trips during his 28 years. But he spoke fondly, in particular, of the third-grade pond visit. “Part of the magic, is you were an explorer,” he said. “You have a dip net and you might get your feet wet and that’s OK.”

After Browning retired, Szczygiel moved into the post. He is a biology major who found education the best route to take for a guy who grew up around nature and worked summers as a naturalist for the YMCA. “You’d find me out there eating the hickory nuts,” he said of his childhood spent in the woods of Ann Arbor.

“If you don’t know about things around you, you can’t take care of it,” Szczygiel says, speaking about the importance of the program. “This puts a value on it.”

A student holds a spring peeper with care.

A student holds a spring peeper with care.

Out in the woods, Szczygiel tells students to tread lightly, watch and listen. After one student discovers a tiny spring peeper under some leaves, he encourages them some more. “There’s more than peepers here,” he says. “Pay attention to what’s in the trees. If you’re quiet, you’ll hear things.”

Fourth-grade teacher Shaugn Kalnaraups’ class is on this trip. She also is educated in the sciences and takes particular delight in the annual outings. “The trips are in synch with what they’re learning in the classroom,” she said. “It extends their learning outdoors.”

Kate, a fourth-grader in Kalnaraups’ class, said her favorite part of the day was when the students jumped up and down in the bog area and watched the ground move.

Classmate Annie said she “learned a lot about the tulip tree. It’s now my favorite tree. The leaves are an awkward shape and they’re really pretty. It’s really massive.”

Students taste yellow birch bark at Waterloo as part of their outdoor adventure.

Students taste yellow birch bark at Waterloo as part of their outdoor adventure.

Small groups of students are escorted around the park with Szczygiel and a team of volunteers who play a critical role. Regulars such as Jane Levy, a retired teacher who now is a beekeeper, and Tom Jameson, spend many days each school year taking groups of students on hikes with Szczygiel. Jameson said he helps with student field trips three to four days each week.

Whether it’s first-graders learning about winter animals at Kensington Metropark or third-graders studying pond habitats, every student in grades kindergarten through six – about 400 classrooms – get a hands-on environmental lesson during the school year. He takes them to gravel pits, water-treatment facilities and into just about every park around the area. Fifth-graders get the thrill of a “winter survival” session where they build fires and cook their own hot lunch.

“A lot of people thought it (environmental education) was a fad,” he adds. “It’s not a fad and it really makes a difference. Every day, students say to me that ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done’.”

Browning said he thinks environmental education has staying power, because it speaks to everyone.

“We live in such a technology age,” he said. “The environmental education program is pretty good at helping you understand that, despite the technology, there’s a real world out there. It’s nice to know about it as a young person and, as they get older, it’s important to learn about it.”

Casey Hans edits this e-newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. Contact her via e-mail at hansc@aaps.k12.mi.us or by calling 734-994-2090 ext. 51228.

Supporting environmental education
Environmental consultant and teacher Dave Szczygiel and planetarium director and physics teacher Steve Schaffer founded the AAPS Science and Environmental Education Endowment Fund through The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. It’s a way, Szczygiel said, to help keep environmental and science programs in Ann Arbor viable long term. To date, the endowment has about $115,000 and has a goal of raising $5 million to fund environmental education in the Ann Arbor schools in perpetuity. Short term, the fund helps defray transportation costs for environmental field trips.
To donate, send a contribution to:
The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation
201 S. Main St., Suite 501
Ann Arbor, MI  48104-2113.
(Write “Science & Environmental Education Endowment” in the check memo line. Call the AAACF for information 734-663-0401.)

How many fourth-graders does it take to circle this 150-year-old tree? Lakewood students are finding out.

How many fourth-graders does it take to circle this 150-year-old tree? Lakewood students are finding out.

How environmental education began here

Two key Ann Arbor residents were instrumental in helping to launch the long-standing environmental education program in The Ann Arbor Public Schools. Both are now deceased, but their efforts live on:

• William B. Stapp began his work in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he established the environmental education program in 1959 and inspired many young people. He wrote lesson plans for all grades and oversaw the program for many years. It was the first comprehensive K-12 conservation and outdoor education program established in the United States, according to information from the district. He later became a professor at the University of Michigan. The William B. Stapp Award is given annually by the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education to worthy educators.
• In 1957 Maxine Smith Miles, who was active in the National Audubon Society, helped to integrate environmental concepts into The Ann Arbor Public Schools program by working with the Board of Education to initiate the program developed by William Stapp. She served as a volunteer for more than 30 years, guiding sixth-graders on nature and science excursions.

The AAPS News welcomes thoughtful comments,
questions and feedback.

All comments will be screened and moderated. In order for your comment to be approved:
  • + You must use your full name
  • + You must not use profane or offensive language
  • + Your comment must be on topic and relevant to the story
Please note: any comment that appears to be spam or attacks an individual will not be approved.