Green & Blue Network Members Learn About Farming, Place-Based Education At MSU Tollgate

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mike Gallagher, Correspondent

When it comes to enjoying and protecting Michigan’s natural beauty and resources or deciding how philanthropy can best play a role in supporting environmental issues and goals throughout the state, no one does it better than the Council of Michigan Foundations’ (CMF) Green & Blue Network.

More than a dozen foundation leaders who make up the Green & Blue Network recently met at MSU Tollgate Education Farm Center in Novi, MI, during an event entitled: “Environmental Education for the Next Generations: No Child Left Inside.”

The purpose of the network – and its events such as Tollgate - according to co-chair Tom Porter, president of the Porter Family Foundation, “is to bring together CMF members and philanthropists to learn from experts and each other about leading environmental issues; how to make more effective and intentional environmental grants; impact environmental policy; and better leverage grant dollars.”

Three top Michigan environmental educators attended the one-day event, sharing their respective expertise and programs designed to help students (K-16) be exposed to nature by teaching them about Michigan’s food system and their responsibility for stewardship of the environment.

Presenting their programs, views and ideas for enhanced environmental education for students were Dave Ivan, Ph.D., Michigan State University (MSU) Extension’s director of the Greening Michigan Institute; Ethan Lowenstein, Ph.D., Eastern Michigan University professor and director of the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition; and Alan Jaros, director of MSU’s Tollgate Education Farm Center.

Also attending the event were environmental experts Dave Allan, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and CMF’s Green & Blue Network’s Scholar In Residence, and Mark Lelle, an environmental program evaluation and strategic planning expert who will be working with the Green & Blue Network on future programs.

A crisp, sunny, early spring day was the setting for the philanthropist’s visit to Tollgate, a unique, hands-on agricultural operation located in an urban environment.

Tollgate’s mission is to promote natural resource stewardship and food system awareness through experiential and interdisciplinary education that connects people to the environment, primarily through showcasing a working farm operation and offering exhibits, programs and events for the community.

“Families, school groups, organizations and community members participate in educational programs using research-based curriculum and methods at our 160-acre learning laboratory,” said Jaros.

“We have more than 40 acres of woodlands, including an intensive sugar maple ‘sugar bush’ and accessible trails for hiking; rolling hay fields and livestock; a pond with native wildlife, plant and fish species; and sustainable vegetable production that includes public use through a Community Supported Agriculture project,” he added.

The hands-on learning programs offered at Tollgate weaves together farm-based education life skills such as self-awareness, confidence and individual collective responsibility to help individuals learn about and embrace the need for sustainable stewardship of the planet.

“Programming created for Tollgate focuses on connecting the science, technology and engineering of agriculture to encourage such things among students as conscious consumerism, academic success, interest and understanding of various agricultural and food-system careers and an appreciation of natural resources and the ecological system,” said Jaros.

Marlene “Marty” Fluharty, executive director of the Americana Foundation, a key financial supporter of Tollgate, called the urban farm system “one of Michigan’s environmental treasures.”

“There is so much to enjoy and learn here…it’s an exciting place for families of all ages to visit and take away some valuable environmental experiences,” noted Fluharty, who showed her familiarity and love of the complex by taking a moment during the tour to say hello – and share a hug with – a friendly farm goat which had obviously formed a tight bond over the years with the grantmaker.

Taking a look at the farm center’s steam-filled, maple sugaring shack and the process used to make maple syrup, Tom Cook, executive director of the Cook Family Foundation and co-chair of the Green & Blue Network, said, “This is great! This (Tollgate tour) is a terrific experience for anyone.”

During his presentation, Lowenstein spoke of a Hope of Detroit Academy (HODA) program called “Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative” (GLSI) funded through a 10-year, $10.9 million commitment by the Great Lakes Fishery Trust.

“GLSI was launched in 2007 to champion Michigan place-based education, a teaching method that seeks to motivate students to learn by leveraging and strengthening their connection to the places they know: their own communities,” said Lowenstein.

“The program does this by funding and supporting nine regional hubs across Michigan, each of which coordinates with schools and community organizations to facilitate partnerships for place-based education,” he added. “Altogether, the GLSI has engaged over 66,000 students and 1,300 teachers in 250 schools since its inception.”

Place-based education provides a meaningful context for students that recognizes the strength of their communities," said Lowenstein, noting this comprehensive approach is unique in the nation. “It recognizes the strength and knowledge of their (students’) families.

“For example,” he explained to the grantmakers, “one environmental-based program had students at HODA learning mapping by charting the location of tire dumps in their communities; learning how to research by conducting interviews with local business owners to better understand the problem; and learning social studies by observing abandoned tires being turned into mud mats through a nonprofit program that employs the community's homeless population.”

Ivan’s presentation highlighted the need for foundation grants to help sustain such important programming at places like Tollgate and schools throughout Michigan.

“With such support, MSU can move the needle and address some of these grand (environmental) challenges we all face in this state in a very meaningful way,” he said.

“One way to move that needle is through place-based education. What we are doing is asking, ‘Are we making sure that science guides our educational activities?’ and secondly, ‘How do we connect what we are doing with GLSI programming which has reached 100,000 kids across southeast Michigan?’

“How do we connect the dots so we are not in silos and we are sharing best practices with a meaningful strategy?” asked Ivan. “(Tollgate) offers us a launching pad that is centered where 40% of the population of Michigan resides. It allows us to connect with individuals by bringing students here with an opportunity to get their hands dirty, to experience nature, to experience how their food is grown and then hopefully take those lessons back home.”

At the end of the Green & Blue Network’s meeting at Tollgate, two grant requests were presented the grantmakers by Jaros and Lowenstein.

Jaros sought partial funding for a multipurpose onsite pavilion to increase Tollgates’ capacity for serving more kids and for its sustainable vegetable production program. The pavilion would be constructed from sustainable wood with a covered metal roof and concrete floor with an estimated $28,000 price tag.         

Lowenstein requested $9,000 in funding support for a one-year pilot program that would prepare and support students in sharing with others the nature and results of their place-based stewardship projects through social media tools.

To date, the Colina Foundation has pledged $5,000 in support of the pavilion project, and the grantmakers are awaiting a revised proposal from Lowenstein for possible future support.

In other news, eight foundation members of the Green & Blue Network Early Action Fund, in support of The Nature Conservancy’s Dune Restoration Project, have so far pledged $18,000 in grants to help that effort.

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