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Issues of the Environment: Environmental Education Program in Ann Arbor Schools teaches students in and out of the classroom

Coert Ambrosino
Coert Ambrosino
Coert Ambrosino


  • Since 1960, the AAPS EE Program has been educating and inspiring students through meaningful learning experiences in the natural environment. Lessons are designed to support and enhance classroom curriculum, most often with specific connections to grade-level science units.  The aim is to help students become responsible environmental stewards, with the attitudes, understandings and skills to protect our one and only Earth now and in the future. (Source: *directly quoted* https://sites.google.com/a/aaps.k12.mi.us/enved/home)
  • The AAPS Environmental Education program enhances Ann Arbor’s sustainability framework, and the school district has created joint sustainability goals with the city surrounding climate change literacy, waste reduction (food, energy, trash) and lowering greenhouse emissions. Students and campuses as a whole engage in programs and activities that further these goals. For example, Styrofoam has been eliminated, a pilot program for composting of cafeteria waste beginning in three elementary schools in 2023-24, and there are plans to maintain or create school gardens on each school property. 
  • Highlights of the program include: 
    • Approximately 450 classes and 9,500 students served in 2022-23.
    • 2 certified teachers.
    • 2,000+ volunteer naturalist hours each year.
    • 2 current Environmental Specialists who serve as substitute trip leaders.
    • 40 acres - size of the Freeman Environmental Education Center property.
    • 18 current students serving on the Freeman Environmental Youth Council.  
  • 400 native plant seedlings and 80 tree saplings propagated & planted last year (Source: *directly quoted* https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1V3-ELbegFME3Hg17iW6SOYdiqxOlt6AkMW6rbsDj5I8/edit#slide=id.g22dcc04aedc_0_3
  • TheFreeman Environmental Education Center on Dixboro Road in Ann Arbor is a hub for Environmental Education and sustainability happenings in the AAPS. The campus has been used by schools for decades, but it became central to AAPS environmental programs in 2018. In 2022, students selected from Huron High School participated in service-learning, with a focus on understanding and managing invasive species. An impressive redesign was done to the Freeman campus, with native landscaping and prairie replacing cold weather turfgrass. Many of the plants used were planted by AAPS students and grown onsite in a greenhouse at the Freeman Center. A majority of AAPS students make field trips to the campus during the year, and a summer camp is offered. 
  • Goals for 2023-24 include: 
    • Continue to provide all 2022-23 EE Program offerings to AAPS classes.
    • Pursue expansion of the ‘Resource Recovery’ Field Trip to more 7th Grade science classes, in partnership with Ecology Center.
    • Research and develop an 8th Grade pilot field trip focusing on Climate Change dynamics, mitigation, and adaptation strategies in Michigan. 
    • Propagate ~700 native plant seedlings and ~125 native tree saplings for habitat enhancement projects at Freeman and other AAPS campuses.
  • AAPS also offers high school students an opportunity to join the Freeman Environmental Youth Council, a districtwide leadership group that brings students together from all five AAPS high schools to collaborate around critical environmental issues that affect young people today and in the future. Youth Council members work together to promote environmental literacy and carry out action projects that demonstrate and engage our school communities in stewardship and sustainability practices.  Students apply to the program in August, and those who are selected work in an adult-student partnership to support existing green clubs and district initiatives, as well as to organize its own annual service project or educational event. Students gain leadership, communication, and environmental advocacy skills as they carry out this important work. (Source: *directly quoted* https://sites.google.com/a/aaps.k12.mi.us/enved/freeman-environmental-youth-council?authuser=0&pli=1)
  • AAPS has an important place in America’s history of environmental education in public schools. In the late 1950’s environmental education was not part of pre-college learning, and as a separate discipline for college study programs were only beginning to take shape. Ann Arbor community members who were active in the local Audubon Society were some of the pioneers in advancing ecological education into the AAPS during the 1960s-70s, especially Eunice Hendrix who paid half the salary for the first environmental programs coordinator, Bill Stapp. Stapp is recognized nationally for being foundational to environmental education in the United States. For the next 30 years, Browning would lead EE, continuing the work initiated by Hendrix, Stapp and others. In 1998, upon Browning’s retirement, Clague science teacher Dave Szczygiel was hired as the new EE coordinator. Szczygiel continues in the position today, guiding an estimated 10,000 students through EE programming each school year. (Source: summary *portions directly used* https://sites.google.com/a/aaps.k12.mi.us/enved/ee-program-history)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to talk about our environment--in present and future tense. A changing climate creates a greater need for adaptations and sustainability efforts. A lot is underway, but the students of today--they're going to have much more work to do as adults. And that means they need a strong environmental education. I'm David Fair, and welcome to Issues of the Environment. The Ann Arbor Public Schools have had an Environmental Education program in place since 1960. But, as you can imagine, what we know today and what we'll have to deal with in the future has changed dramatically. Our guest today is working directly with Ann Arbor students. Coert Ambrosino is an environmental education teacher in the district. And thanks for making time during a school day. I appreciate it.

Coert Ambrosino:Thank you for the invitation. I'm really happy to be with you.

David Fair: Why are you so passionate about environmental education?

Coert Ambrosino: Well, you know, working with young people is just such an honor to have the opportunity to impact their lives and to, you know, create opportunities to have students in the field getting inspired, getting curious and seeing those a-ha moments. And I think my work with young people as a teacher over the last 16 years has just truly been inspiring. You know, part of that is opportunities that I had as a kid that helped set me on that path: in summer camp experiences on environmental education field trips and Ann Arbor Schools, as the product of the school system. I remember going on field trips with Bill Browning, and then, you know, as I continued my path into high school and university studies and beyond, those experiences that I had, I think, inspired me to want to help deliver those similar opportunities for young people.

David Fair: You are still a relatively young man, as you just described. So, it wasn't all that long ago you were in the Ann Arbor schools. But I imagine the changing nature of our environmental conditions has already changed how you have to approach teaching today's students.

Coert Ambrosino: Yeah, that's right. You know, we have a really strong foundation in the Ann Arbor Public Schools Environmental Education program. We've been in place for over 60 years. And so, we're building on a long tradition. And, you know, some of our programs have stayed consistent. And we have a number of field trips that have been in place for decades and still ring true today and help us develop different skills and attitudes in students. But, at the same time, we're constantly changing and evolving, so we aim to support and enrich classroom curriculum. So, as that curriculum changes, we too, you know, revise and add to our programming. And, you know, today, we are really trying to grow our secondary programming for middle and high school students and to expand sustainability education opportunities to really be a part of the preparation of students, so that they will graduate with the skills and understanding they need to, you know, face life in a world, you know, that's facing a climate crisis.

David Fair: Based on your observations, are the students today taking more notice and having a greater interest in environmental protection and sustainability?

Coert Ambrosino: Oh, I do believe! You know, our young students just love being in the field with us. And we see a really high level of engagement. And as we move into, you know, middle school and high school, we definitely see students who bring with them to our field experiences and lessons a lot of background knowledge, concern, in some cases, anxiety and, you know, an authentic desire to to expand their learning and to contribute to solutions. And so, you know, in both in-class activities and projects, we see students, you know, applying their learning and wanting to participate in environmental action and advocacy and then in extracurricular context as well, you know, in school-based green teams and environmental clubs and also in our districtwide Environmental Youth Council, the Freeman Environmental Youth Council, of which I am the adult liaison. I see a lot of interest and a lot of dedication that these young people have to contributing to solutions.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Coert Ambrosino continues. He's an environmental education teacher in the Ann Arbor School District. And I'm glad you mentioned the field trips and the kind of hands-on experience and that out-of-classroom opportunity. How valuable is the Freeman Environmental Education Center over on Dixboro Road to the overall value of environmental education students in Ann Arbor are receiving?

Coert Ambrosino: Oh, it's such an exciting new chapter for the Environmental Education program. You know, this is a long time site for the Ann Arbor Schools, but it was rededicated in 2018 as the Freeman Environmental Education Center. And since that time, we've been working to build new programming and new opportunities for students to come here and to do learning, you know, in the building, but also in the field on this 40-acre site. So, it's a huge value to us. We are currently bringing all of our second graders here as an example for a plant study that they do with us on half of the day. And then, we've partnered with the Ecology Center, and they are delivering a zero-waste program when students are here at the Freeman Center. So, they get two really high interest and important lessons onsite. Again, we have a youth council that's based in this site. They do their meetings and host events here. And we're working to enhance the grounds and be good stewards of the land, both to improve it environmentally and also to create great learning opportunities for our students.

David Fair: So, back in those district buildings and on the grounds of the school buildings themselves, how are kids using the Environmental Education program to improve the environmental conditions and sustainability practices of the district?

Coert Ambrosino: Yeah. So, you know, we see the Freeman Center as a place where students and teachers can experience lessons and learn in, you know, in a contextualized way about, you know, on-campus projects and hands-on ways to contribute to, you know, land management and to environmental conservation and enhancement. And our hope is that those things ripple out back to school campuses. And so, you know, school gardens is one way that students are involved on their own campuses and not just, you know, vegetable gardens, but thinking about things like grain gardens and pollinator gardens. More and more, we see classes out on to the campuses, getting their hands into the soil, and being a part of that type of work in terms of, you know, sustainability practices. There's lots of opportunities for hands-on participation in terms of recycling efforts in the schools, as it would be one example. But, really, what we aim for is strong connections between classroom curricula. So, what students are studying in class and then, you know, real world applications. And so, with our field trips, we really try to be well-connected to the classroom curriculum and providing, you know, an experiential learning opportunity that enhances what they're studying in the classroom.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Coert Ambrosino on Issues of the Environment. And you mentioned practical application. The future job market in America is and will continue expanding into the realms of energy and sustainability. Is there some focus on preparing students, at least in the higher grades, for the labor force with the environmental education you're providing?

Coert Ambrosino: Yes, You know, a couple of things come to mind. One is the pretty impressive work that's going on in our school buildings and grounds in the realm of sustainability and, you know, supported through the bond program. And so, a lot of impressive investment in, you know, for example, solar and geothermal installations. And we're working to build, you know, curriculum and learning opportunities for student staff and community to really understand what those investments are, why they're there, what they do, and to give, you know, people in our school system access and awareness of those installations. Beyond that, another really exciting goal that we're working on is a natural resources career and technical education track maybe for high school students. And this is one of the goals that's named in the AAPS environmental sustainability framework that was adopted by the Board of Education last December. And so, that is in a planning phase right now. But, in the coming years, we are very hopeful that we'll be able to offer that course. That would be a direct way for high school students to gain job skills in the realm of environmental science.

David Fair: Now, you also graduated from the University of Michigan. It obviously has a huge footprint in environmental education. Do some of the district students get exposed to those expanding educational opportunities before they graduate high school?

Coert Ambrosino: Yeah, we definitely collaborate with U of M in a number of contacts. We utilize the botanical gardens, for example, for some of our field experiences. We have collaborations with, you know, professors and students in the SEES school. We've had an amazing master's student over the last couple of years, for example, working on her thesis here at the Freeman Center and helping to support our prairie restoration project. And, in fact, we're hopeful about this coming year engaging in a master's project at the SEES school again to help develop a long-term plan--a master plan--for the Freeman Environmental Education Center, pulling together all of the analysis and surveys and and recommendations that we have worked on over the last few years into a more cohesive and forward-thinking plan. In addition to that, we have an environmental sustainability advisory group with many different community entities represented, including U of M, and that's a place where we as a school district can collaborate with other community partners, share thinking, and look for opportunities to have some economy of scale as we make advancements in the realm of sustainability and environmental access.

David Fair: Well, through the course of our conversation, you have provided a lot of hope and optimism for environmental leadership that is to come in the decades ahead. Thank you so much for the work you're doing. And thank you for the time today.

Coert Ambrosino: Thank you, David. Do well.

David Fair: That is Coert Ambrosino. He is an environmental education teacher in the Ann Arbor Public School District. For more information, go to our Web site at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resource Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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