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CMU honors students created outdoor learning experiences for children visiting Forest Hill.

Going outside the classroom

CMU honors students develop new outdoor educational experiences for children

Contact: Ari Harris

​The Forest Hill Nature Area occupies 90 acres just outside Mount Pleasant. Its gently rolling hills, marshes and fields might seem like an unlikely setting for lessons about math. CMU honors students representing more than a dozen academic programs disagree.

During the spring semester, the class, led by biology faculty member Brad Swanson, spent 15 weeks outside regardless of rain and snow to develop a new nature-based curriculum and educational experiences for local schoolchildren.


Honors students from a dozen academic disciplines participated in the project.

Bringing classroom lessons outside

Erika Kemler, director at Forest Hill, has been working with local schools to develop free customized learning opportunities in subjects ranging from geology and history to science and Native American culture for several years.

Although the center serves thousands of schoolchildren each year, Kemler said there were things she wanted to see improved or expanded. Her wish list included help developing new curricula, creating new learning environments around the grounds and improving the center's marketing materials.

She reached out to CMU for help.

A dozen disciplines, one project

Kemler said she was excited to learn that the team of students represented more than a dozen academic programs of study.

"They could see how their work would make a difference. They brought a lot of excitement, passion and fresh ideas to the project," Kemler said.

She gave the CMU students copies of existing curricula and activity sheets and turned them loose in the park.


Andrew Renwand, a junior studying integrated science for secondary education; Shane Guenin, a sophomore outdoor and environmental recreation major; and Jordyn Rademacher, a sophomore double-majoring in math and integrated science for elementary education, were excited to develop new materials for outdoor lesson plans.

Geunin said the project gave him the chance to combine a love of being outdoors with a desire to reach young learners in a more interactive way.

"In one of my outdoor recreation classes, we talk about the positive impact of quality outside time on young children's development. We are tailoring lessons to meet a variety of learning levels and attention spans."

The group developed comprehensive lesson plans that include teacher resources, worksheets and post-visit follow-up activities.

Building a historically accurate habitat

Many schools that visit Forest Hill are interested in learning more about the history of Native Americans in Michigan, Kemler said. She wanted to give visitors a way to experience that history in a tangible way with a wigwam constructed using materials found within the park.

Natalie Bowen, a sophomore secondary education major; Mark Zdan, a senior in the mechanical engineering program; and Ty Troxell, a senior exercise science major, volunteered to build the historically and culturally accurate dwelling.

The group visited the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways to look for examples. Zdan, who had prior experience with drafting, created a blueprint.

"Using what was available in the area came naturally to the Native Americans of the past, but it was a challenge for us. It certainly made for a lot of work," Troxell said.

The finished structure will accommodate roughly a dozen school-age children and a teacher or two.

Protecting and preserving local bees

"Native Michigan bees are almost harmless. They don't sting or swarm. They are relatively docile, which makes it easier for school-age children to get up close to them," Kemler said.

Abbey Van Allsburg, a sophomore psychology major; Kendra Peffers, a freshman studying communication sciences and disorders; Hannah White, a sophomore mechanical engineering major; and Spanish and biology double-major Bailey Goetz, a sophomore, wanted to focus on helping these local bees survive and thrive.

After writing a successful grant requesting materials from DeWitt Lumber Co., the students began construction of a hotel for the solitary bees. The structure also provided a backdrop for lesson plans they developed to teach counting, data collection, and scientific observation and sketching skills.


To provide a home for Michigan's native bees, students created a freestanding bee hotel.

The students also are developing an educational video about bees and pollination and a set of worksheets about sustainability.

"It's so exciting to see our work coming together and to be able to say 'we did that,'" Peffers said.

Improving outreach

Sarah Heck, a freshman studying graphic design; Kamryn Lowler, a freshman studying integrative public relations; and outdoor recreation studies freshman Emily Bober developed marketing materials including brochures and posters, created a website plan, and set up new social media channels for the center.

Bober said the new channels and materials cater better to young audiences who crave exciting visuals. Their work features many images of the area's ponds, hills, woods and fields.

"We want these sites to help the center build new relationships with the community. Our goal is to help people get outside," Lowler said.

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