Fellowship for K-12 teachers: How to empower students to work on sustainability

March 16, 2022
Written By:
Fernanda Pires

Jessica Marcet, a middle and high school math teacher in New Lothrop in mid-Michigan, is continually searching for unique ways to engage her students.

For the last two years, Marcet has immersed herself in a learning process of her own in the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship, a program created for K-12 teachers of all disciplines interested in teaching sustainability issues.

Fellows Haeley Huggard and Jessica Marcet. Images courtesy: U-M School of Education

Fellows Haeley Huggard and Jessica Marcet. Images courtesy: U-M School of Education

“This program has been a highlight in my professional career,” she said. “The experience was unlike other traditional, ‘sit-and-get’ professional development opportunities. I have been challenged to step outside my comfort zone to develop and implement place-based, sustainability-focused units.”

During the program, Marcet said she often takes on the role of a student, which makes her step back and look at lesson implementation differently.

“Learning is much more than what can be passed from one individual to another. It is being actively involved; it makes a huge difference in content retention,” she said.

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

It trains and supports K-12 educators who teach primarily in Michigan’s Arenac, Bay, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw counties. Since 2019, 47 fellows from 24 schools have worked with 27 community partners during the program. Applications for the 2022-23 cohort are due April 3.

From water quality, renewable energy and food waste to plastics and the circular economy, fellows dive into interdisciplinary work in designing projects and engaging students with community partners, such as local nonprofits, businesses and municipal or state agencies.

The Fellows sampling water from a dock.

The Fellows sampling water from a dock

“Place-based education can provide real-world context to sustainability issues that students either hear about in their daily lives or are experiencing directly,” said Emily Schaller, program coordinator for the Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship. “We aim to equip teachers with tools to address these topics in their classroom and make them more comfortable with using community resources and spaces in their curriculum. Then they can effectively empower their students to make a difference in their community.”

Nate Phipps, Meaghan Gass and fellow Rebecca Field

Nate Phipps, Meaghan Gass and Fellow Rebecca Field

Nate Phipps, managing director of the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research, says the program “allows students to really become passionate about the outdoors, about sustainability, about their environment and their community.”

This fall’s program will be its fourth year, which will kick off with an in-person onboarding session in mid-June. The next teacher’s cohort will receive high-quality professional development, followed by a three-week-long virtual learning module introducing sustainability topics and place-based pedagogy. Additionally, there will be in-person workshops and networking events held in August.

All fellows receive a $2,000 stipend and mini-grant opportunities to support sustainability unit implementation in the classroom.

“We were fully supported throughout the entire program,” said fellow Kari Keith, a middle school teacher in the Saginaw Township Community School District. “All too often, we receive some form of professional development and are then expected to go off and implement what we have learned. Throughout this fellowship, however, we had someone available to answer questions, provide resources and put us in touch with others who were doing similar projects.”

Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship 2021-2022 cohort

Dow Innovation Teacher Fellowship 2021-22 cohort

For Marcet, her students not only were taught the units she developed, but they also were able to witness a teacher constantly learning.

“I’ve been able to demonstrate a love of learning for both my students and colleagues,” she said. “I was also able to actively involve students in thinking about and making changes that impact the environment. From picking up trash outside to modeling plastic waste to helping reduce the amount of waste our cafeteria produces, I have engaged my students in real-world problem solving while developing skills that would be useful in life beyond the classroom.”