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Case Study Washington Middle School
Case Study Washington Middle School
Place-based project in action
CALUMET, Mich. — If you want to know about sustainable forest management in this Upper Peninsula village, you’ll need to ask a 12-year-old. That’s because every Washington Middle School student for the last 16 years has taken part in extensive place-based learning opportunities in a 43-acre school forest near the Lake Superior shoreline.
This school forest management curriculum has not only helped students attain key educational milestones, but it’s also encouraged a deeper connection to the community and appreciation for the region’s natural resources.
“This place-based project has always been about the community that the students live in, their ownership, buy-in and recognition of its importance,” said Darrell Hendrickson, retired Washington Middle School teacher.
Mother Nature's Lessons
Washington Middle School is part of the Public Schools of Calumet, Laurium and Keweenaw, the state’s northernmost K-12 district. Surrounded by Lake Superior, the district lies at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
It’s a region rich in history and natural beauty.
“There are just so many great natural resources around the area that we can incorporate into our curriculums,” said Timothy Porter, sixth grade science teacher.
The work is part of the Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative (LSSI), a partnership of individuals and organizations connecting students in more than 15 Western U.P. schools and communities in the stewardship of Lake Superior and its watershed. LSSI is the regional hub of the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative.
“Including these mutually beneﬁcial relationships within the school day helps students become contributing members of society,” said Emily Gochis, regional director of the Western U.P. MiSTEM Network and LSSI program director. “We could take them on outdoor hikes and that would build appreciation. Projects such as these go much further and create lifelong stewards.”
A new learning opportunity presented itself in 2003 when now-retired Calumet Township Supervisor Paul Lehto met with local educators to discuss ways to offset vandalism of Calumet Waterworks Park and the long-neglected school forest.
The hands-on forest lessons kicked off in 2006 when Hendrickson’s science class ﬁrst collected data on the trees to determine the health of the school forest and measure their growth over time. The project has evolved through the years and now includes a range of pre- and post-ﬁeld trip lessons for sixth graders across all curriculums:
- Science and math: Classes lay out a 1/20th-acre plot from existing plot centers located by GPS. Sixteen plots are inventoried covering about 10 acres. Groups systematically inventory all 4-inch-diameter trees within their plots. Over the course of two May ﬁeld trips, students identify tree species, measure tree diameters and determine how much of each tree might be sustainably harvested for timber.
- Language arts: Students conduct plant species inventories with chaperones who assist them in plant identiﬁcation. Plants are cataloged and their habitat type is determined. Soil samples are collected for site evaluation.
- Social studies: Students tour speciﬁc sites within the forest plots, making note of the cultural and historical signiﬁcance of each area and its relationship to the Keweenaw Peninsula’s history.
- Computer technology: The instructor provides logistical support for the ﬁeld trip, data management and sign-making.
The project culminates in a community day when students share their learning with tours, presentations, displays and brochures.
In addition to forest management, students work throughout the year on several other place-based projects, including beach cleanup, invasive species removal and native plantings.
Teachers use common planning time to discuss and schedule activities inside and outside the classroom. In recent years, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and community members have also participated in a book club that ties in with their annual projects.
“All the projects done by Washington Middle School in Calumet Township Park have raised awareness and instilled stewardship to our community,” Lehto said.
“The teachers I have worked with are always looking for a way to engage their students in meaningful learning,” Hendrickson said. “And what better way to do this than embed them into the local issues that directly can have an effect on the community in which they live and play."
These projects all developed and evolved over time thanks in part to place-based stewardship education support from LSSI and a network of regional partners. Those efforts include teacher professional development, project mentorship and mini-grant funding. The Washington Middle School team has been a key participant in these actives since 2009, Gochis said.
Learning to appreciate the community
The interdisciplinary project reﬂects school improvement goals for each content area and encourages career exploration in a variety of ﬁelds. Hendrickson said he knows of at least four Washington Middle School students who have gone on to careers in environmental science.
Whatever their career choice, all students are gaining an understanding of how forest management decisions are made for sustainable timber harvest, wildlife protection and climate change mitigation, Hendrickson said.
Yearly data collection is summarized and analyzed by students; the results are shared annually at a community celebration.
In spring 2022, students for the ﬁrst time presented their recommendations on which mature trees should be harvested for timber to school district and Calumet Township oﬃcials. It was an important milestone for Washington’s teachers and students, Hendrickson said.
“The community and the schools get a great management plan, the sugar maple forest is managed sustainably, and the wildlife and watershed are protected,” he said. “Most importantly, students develop a deep understanding of how good management can yield a valuable crop of trees while protecting and even enhancing the ecosystem.”
The township is weighing the students’ recommendation.