Glenn Puit: The Little Program That Could

October 1, 2008 | |

Big things are happening in a small office in Houghton, Mich., on the campus of Michigan Technological University, and they are affecting kids in classrooms across the state, as well as citizen planners literally around the world.

Joan Chadde wants to make sure that, in the coming decades, Michigan’s citizens can make well-informed decisions about their communities’ growth, land use, environment. But Ms. Chadde is not turning to local governments and officials to do that; instead, she’s turning to teachers and kids.

Ms. Chadde and her colleagues at the Western Upper Peninsula Center for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education are providing teachers and students in schools throughout the five western counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with lessons on land use, energy, water quality, and community planning.

The goal, she said, is to help shape today’s youth into tomorrow’s community leaders.

“Today’s students will be tomorrow’s voters and decision-makers,” she added. “Many decisions on issues like land use are made by citizens on local councils, who often have little background in planning and land use. So why not have them start learning this important information while in middle or high school?”

The Center, which works with Michigan Tech, has made major strides in the last three years. For example, it is now helping to develop a unique, comprehensive environmental education curriculum for Michigan teachers and students in grades four to nine. The new curriculum focuses on Michigan’s ecosystems, land use, water quality, energy resources, and air quality.

The Center worked with scientists, resource managers, and classroom teachers to write three of these curriculum units that are now part of the statewide Michigan Environmental Education Support Curriculum (MEECS) program.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is now using the units at workshops for more than 3,000 teachers throughout the state, who in turn will use them in their classrooms.

One unit is for land use, and shows fourth- and fifth-graders how different kinds of land use, from agriculture and forestry to urban development, affect communities.

The energy unit focuses on renewable versus non-renewable energy in Michigan, how to use energy more efficiently, and how to reduce students’ carbon footprints.

“In all of the units, students learn about data-based decision-making, the role of government in managing natural resources, the importance of citizen involvement in a democracy, and the importance of stewardship,” Ms. Chadde said. “The program assessment clearly indicates that students have a better comprehension about these topics when they use the MEECS classroom materials.”

The Center also published Looks Count!, which contains middle school lessons on community land use, and Design Guidelines to Enhance Community Appearance and Protect Natural Resources. Local teachers helped develop Looks Count!, which introduces students to suburban sprawl, surveying community members about their needs and concerns, assessing the visual appearance of their community, measuring the environmental consequences of changing land use, and making recommendations for what they want their community to look like.

The Design Guidelines guidebook tackles some of the top community planning topics in Michigan-visual corridors, designing pedestrian-friendly downtowns, signage, night lighting, maintaining community character, and more. The guidebook was designed for students and teachers, but it’s ability to simplify these complex topics has led to its far greater distribution to citizens on planning boards throughout Michigan, as well as to 42 states, four provinces, and four countries.

To find out more about the Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum Support, visit,1607,7-135-3307_3580_29678—,00.html.

To order a copy of Looks Count or the Design Guidelines, see

If all of Michigan’s students could use these educational materials, it could profoundly change Michigan’s future.



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