This is Michigan

stories of our state

Get outside: Fellowship helps K-12 educators teach students the importance of sustainability

Studies show that real-world hands-on learning leads to better outcomes for students.




Coleman Elementary

Coleman, MI

Students ho-hummed about, “Oh, we’re doing science today. It’s just another chapter in a book,” or “just a bunch of vocabulary words I’m never going to use again.”


The University of Michigan’s Dow Teacher Innovation Fellowship (DTIF) offers teachers the training, networking and funding they need to help their students learn better, connect more deeply with their community, and become tomorrow’s leaders in sustainability.




Hemmeter Elementary School 

Saginaw, MI

They did a great job with background knowledge, teaching us about sustainability and people that are in our area that like to work with schools, have resources, have experts and are willing to work with us. I would not have those connections without coming here. 




Bullock Creek Middle School

Midland, MI

Bullock Creek Middle School, we have these great wetlands right across the street, so it’s not even a five-minute walk for us, and I didn’t really kind of understand how I could use it. A whole bunch of ideas in my head right now. 


After participating in virtual learning and in-person activities in the summer, teachers are offered mini-grants to create sustainability projects at their schools.



They get to take a school bus up to the landfill, sit on top of the landfill and see how much waste there actually was, and the stuff that could have been recycled … they could visualize it and see it, and to me, that was powerful. That was eye-opening. And we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it without the funding from the program. 




University of Michigan

Grounding education in real-world problems is what we need to do with our education. We want students to be able, instead of feeling overwhelmed and daunted by them, and so checking out of the world around them, that they feel like they’ve got the power to make a difference. 



They get so excited to be out here, and my students are going to create trails and then they’re going to be the leaders that bring other classes out to share this experience with them. 


The DTIF program has trained teachers in 33 mid-Michigan schools.




Chippewa Nature Center

Coleman Elementary Community Partner

When we come out and we talk about food chains and we explore food chains and we find chewed leaves and we find insects and we find spiders, the students can explain it in a completely different way because they’ve experienced it. And that’s what place-based and project-based learning really provides for students is that authentic knowledge that they gained themselves. 



Because we went outside, now those kids are using vocabulary correctly. They’re excited about it. 



With my magnifying glass, I observed bird scat on a leaf.


I got to go and walk around in the woods and I got to observe a lot of different, really cool things. 


We call it a puffball. And the spores went everywhere, which are like the seeds, and it’ll plant new ones next year. 



I love science. The last few years it wasn’t really my thing, but with Ms. Klopf,

I’ve liked it more, mostly because of outdoor education.



In the classroom, some of the kids don’t retain or understand the information that’s given, but the experiences I bring in from partnerships and the experiences I do out here, they’re going to remember forever. Coming out here, it sticks. 

Video Produced by Jennifer Howard, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Fernanda Pires

COLEMAN, Michigan—Once a week, science literacy teacher Amy Klopf takes her sixth grade students outside for hands-on and place-based lessons. It is a special day for the group, it is “Outdoor Education Wednesday.”

Amy Klopf looking through a magnifying glass on a sunny day

Amy Klopf participated twice in the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship, a program created for K-12 teachers of all disciplines interested in teaching sustainability issues.

Far from their classroom with different scenery and tools, the students learn about trees and logs, rocks, soil, how to use and take care of natural areas, and discuss the importance of sustainability, water cycles and much more.

“They just light up when our classes are outdoors,” said Klopf, a Coleman Elementary School teacher in Midland County. “They appreciate and enjoy science better now and will always remember the experiences we do out here.”

Amy Klopf teaching at the front of her classroom

Amy Klopf, a sixth grade teacher at Coleman Elementary, reviews science and sustainability lessons with her students before taking them outside for hands-on and place-based lessons.

Klopf has worked as a teacher since 2001. She is a fellow—for the second time—in the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship, a program created for K-12 teachers of all disciplines interested in teaching sustainability issues, while fostering and supporting links between schools, classrooms and communities.

“This program opens your eyes. Just the idea of sustainability and what our kids can do to better their environment and their living and realize that it’s for future generations. It’s not just for now.”

~ Amy Klopf, teacher at Coleman Elementary

This fourth cohort has 23 educators who teach primarily in mid-Michigan, including Arenac, Bay, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw counties.

“With a place-based curriculum, the students realize that what they are learning in class can be applied in their backyard, what they’re doing when they get older, or all of a sudden, they realize this is the job they want. This opportunity puts that in perspective,” said Klopf, whose first participation was virtual two years ago during COVID.

Students standing outside in a circle with a nature center staff member in the middle. Some of the students have their hands raised.

The program fosters links between schools, classrooms and communities. Here, partners from a nearby nature center answer students’ questions.

This year, Klopf’s students will create trails in the forest lab, located behind their school.

“Then they will be the leaders that bring other classes out to share this experience with them. They learn so much more by teaching others,” she said.

Backyard forest lab

Surrounded by peers, 11-year-old Mackenzie Staley is one of the most excited students at the forest lab.

Students walking over autumn leaves in the woods on a sunny day

This year, Klopf’s students will create trails in the forest lab, located behind their school. Next year, they will be the leaders who share the experience with other classes.

“I’ve always been connected to the outdoors, so getting to do science out here has made me want to learn more things,” she said. “I am observing and discovering new things. I didn’t notice them on a daily basis walking around the woods. But I’m more focused on it now.”

A student crouching down in the woods and examining a rock with a magnifying glass

Students become more focused on nature as a result of their discoveries.

One of Staley’s favorite parts of the outdoor education program is becoming a multiplier effect student.

Emily Schaller stands in front of the fountain in the School of Education building

Emily Schaller, U-M program manager for the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship.

“Because of being out here, we’re thinking about making a naturalists club,” she said. “We want to fix up the trails and make it so that we can bring younger kids out here so they can like science, too.”

The program

The fellowship is the first program of the Andrew N. Liveris Institute, a partnership among the University of Michigan School of Education’s Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research, the Dow Company Foundation and Delta College.

Since 2019, 63 fellows from 33 schools have been selected. Additionally, 34 organizations, businesses, agencies and institutions have elected to participate as community partners, helping to lend local context and content knowledge to teacher sustainability units.

Fellows receive professional development sessions, including 18 hours of virtual asynchronous professional development for three weeks and up to 12 hours of in-person workshops and events. They also receive a $2,000 stipend and mini-grant opportunities to support sustainability unit implementation in the classroom.

Jenn Kirts standing in the woods and smiling

Jenn Kirts, director of programs at Chippewa Nature Center, has worked with different teachers in several capacities around sustainability.

“Sustainability education is so important and teachers need help designing education that is going to engage their students to take on sustainability,” said Emily Schaller, program manager for the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship. “It is a big interdisciplinary topic, it fits into every grade level, in every subject area, and they aren’t necessarily trained in teaching that.”

Schaller said the program’s mission is to ensure K-12 teachers have the expertise to teach sustainability in all areas.

“Without sustainability lessons, we aren’t going to create sustainability leaders for the future,” she said. “Sometimes education is provided in a way that separates us from our place. We learn things that are happening far away when the community around us offers so much to learn about and from. We want students to tackle real-world challenges and engage in their community.”

Green leaves under a magnifying glass

Detail on explorations during the fellowship meeting in Saginaw.

A community partner since 2019, Jenn Kirts, director of programs at Chippewa Nature Center, has worked with different teachers in several capacities around sustainability.

“It is just a perfect fit for us, considering place-based education is also a direct fit with our mission,” she said. “Our goal is to connect everyone to nature. We want to connect to all the communities around us. This program allows us to be in the schools and serve the students, and then we become familiar with the families. It’s also fantastic to design customized programs; it helps us grow as professionals.”

Another one of Klopf’s science students, Max Imusplace, also counts the days for “Outdoor Education Wednesdays” weekly. Besides getting some fresh air, he enjoys walking around the woods to observe different vegetation, tree species, animals and insects.

“There was this branch that broke off of a tree and on the underside was this black stuff growing on it,” he said. “It was some fungus. So I actually get to see many things I’ve learned in the classroom.

“A lot of the time, I’ll hear something that will go through one ear and come out the other. I don’t remember it. But then, when I’m out in nature, I pay more attention to everything. Everything feels different. It feels much more real, more embracing.”

Students gathering outside of The Morley Building

The fourth group of fellows has 23 educators who teach primarily in mid-Michigan schools including those in Arenac, Bay, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw counties.

More Regional Stories