AAPS Environmental Education Program Immerses Students in Nature

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Nature itself is the best physician.” A classic quote that the Ann Arbor Public School Environmental Education program makes pertinent today.

The 54-year old, awarding-winning program explores how the environment and nature are linked to health and wellness. As a result, the AAPS EE program, available in all Ann Arbor Public Schools, is a model environmental and outdoor education program for the entire nation.

Getting kids away from smartphones

With the amount of time students now spend with the internet, television, and electronic devises —an average of 9 hours of media a day, according to recent research by Common Sense Media— interacting and learning about the environment has never been more vital.

“Over the last 30 years I have seen a reduction in time children spend outside, even during the school day,” said David Szczygiel, Environmental Consultant for Ann Arbor Public Schools, who is also a former science teacher. “With electronic devices, social media, and other indoor distractions, I find students are becoming less aware of local natural phenomena because they do not spend as much time outdoors.”

Trips into the field

Students of Ann Arbor Public Schools participate in the Environmental Education Program from kindergarten through 7th grade with field trips to enhance the science and/or social studies curriculum being taught. “In 2nd grade students study rocks and minerals, so a field trip to the gravel pit allows students to study rocks and minerals in the field,” said Dave Szczygiel, AAPS Environmental Consultant. “Nearly 9,000 students participate in the entire (EE) program each year. Multiple field trips are conducted nearly every school day between September and June.”

Each Environmental Education lesson in the field equates to a day of curriculum in Ann Arbor Schools. The outdoor lesson in integrated into a regular school day unit to provide a real-world learning opportunity.

“Students study a unit called Watery Earth in fourth grade,” said Szczygiel. “The EE lesson provides them a visit to a wastewater treatment plant to provide them with real life experience as part of the unit.”

Age appropriate topics

Generally speaking, in elementary school, students learn about the complex nature of our environment, while in the middle school years students begin to gather data about their environment and analyze the natural world more closely. 

In the 6th grade, students began to study the local Pall Gelman Dioxane spill brought to light in the 1980s. Gelman Sciences, later purchased by Pall Life Sciences, polluted groundwater off Wagner Road in Ann Arbor, in the process of making medical filters. Much of that pollution has been cleaned up, but environmentalists and government agencies are still closely monitoring dioxane levels. There has also been fear that contamination could eventually spill into Barton Pond on the Huron River and poison Ann Arbor’s main drinking water supply.

“I enjoy teaching about the Dioxane spill, because I think students should gain knowledge from past mistakes regarding the environment, and understand the consequences regarding the environment as not separate from the world of humans,” said Szczygiel.  “Older ideas of treating the river as a sewer or a waste basket, or thoughtless disposal of waste have created problems. Students should be empowered to choose harmonious interactions between business, nature and limited resources.”

On their 6th grade field trip, students tour and experience presentations from the Recycle Ann Arbor-ReUse Center, conduct water testing at an area creek, examine erosion at the Ann Arbor Nichols Arboretum, and examine hydrology at work at Barton Dam.

Long serving and committed

Szczygiel started working for AAPS in 1986 at Forsythe Junior High School teaching science in grades 7th, 8th and 9th. He taught 10 years at Clague Middle School in 7th & 8th grade science. Since 1997 his title has been Environmental Education Consultant, leading the Environmental Education Program.

“My extended family has enjoyed the opportunities Ann Arbor has to offer for over 100 years,” said Szczygiel. “I feel lucky to have the educational and economic opportunities provided by the rich culture in Ann Arbor, and yet be so close to thousands of acres of natural areas surrounding the town.”

The efforts of the Environmental Program are greatly appreciated by the Ann Arbor community and has earned awards and accolades over the years. “We have been honored to received grant money for special projects. I also received an award from the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education,“  Szczygiel.  “Feedback about the (EE) program is generally positive from both students and adults.”

Working with UM

AAPS’s EE Program has collaborated with the University of Michigan for the past four years. Erin Burkett, Research Project Coordinator, has worked with UM faculty and students, AAPS teachers, and curriculum specialists to create a middle school science unit titled, “Climate Change and Michigan Forests.”

Climate change is not only horrible for the planet, but research suggests it is bad for individuals health as well, linked to an increase in cardiac problems, allergies, heat waves, droughts and increased infectious diseases. “The curriculum includes hands-on data collection, technology in the classroom, exploratory learning, and a field trip,” said Burkett. “Each of these components was designed to engage students, improve their knowledge of forest ecology and climate science research techniques, and to make learning about these topics fun.”

According to Burkett, AAPS  students who participate in this unit, investigate how Michigan’s forests will be altered by climate change utilizing data from ongoing research conducted by Dr. Ines Ibanez at UM’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. Collaborative projects with the University of Michigan include the 1997 Gypsy Moth project and the 2011 Dragonfly Game project. During the Dragonfly game project, students worked with the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to develop an educational online game as part of a $20,000 foundation grant.

Szczygiel  has also worked on projects with the Huron River Watershed Council, City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County,  the Brokaw Foundation, the Argus Farm Stop, The Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, and The Southeastern Michigan Community Foundation (GO! Outdoor Program). Szczygiel is currently working with engineers and scientists at the University of Michigan to develop curriculum at the new STEAM school at Northside.

He remains dedicated to his work with young students, believing he can see their enthusiasm growing. “Their level of interest and excitement is high,” said Szczygiel. “I find that students really look forward to the outdoor adventure we have together each year.”