Leaders in environmental education and community-based learning

Nigora Erkaeva, Program Associate

Nigora Erkaeva is a PhD candidate at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). As a program associate for the SEMIS Coalition, she assists in the coordination of the daily functions of the organization, supports the planning and facilitation of professional development, fundraising stewardship, research, communications and social media curation.
Nigora’s dissertation employs a critical discourse analysis of the introduction of compulsory education and historical change in Central Asia in the early twentieth century. She has taught undergraduate Social Foundation of Education at EMU. Her research interests include place-based learning, EcoJustice education, postcolonial theory, settler colonialism, critical studies, feminism and how can we build a society that is healthy, democratic, organic and sustainable socially, economically, politically and ecologically through education.

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Laura Florence, Project Lead for Climate Change Resilience & Great Lakes Literacy Initiatives

Laura Florence is an Education Specialist focusing on Great Lakes and STEM education and leads our Climate Change Resilience initiative. In this role she provides expertise in guiding us on classroom content, school inquiry projects, teacher tools and multimedia resources, and connecting with our partners. Her responsibilities include supporting SEMIS teachers in expanding their Great Lakes literacy and connecting them to community partners with expertise in Great Lakes science and education.

Laura holds a B.S. in Biology and Anthropology and a M.S. in Aquatic Ecology, both from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining the SEMIS coalition, she worked at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab and Michigan Sea Grant doing research, outreach and education. Laura is also an experienced environmental educator, trained in Project WET, Project WILD and Project Learning Tree.  She serves on the Board of Trustees at the Leslie Science and Nature Center and Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum.

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Miriam Furlan Brighente, Ph.D., Program Associate 

She/her, Latina-American, Brazilian, Italian ancestry, psychosocially Disabled, first-generation high-school graduate, and MA and PhD in education from Pontifical University Catholic of Parana, Brazil. Her research interests include Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, feminist popular education, intersectionality, place-based education (PBE), and disability justice (DJ) to help create community coalition building.

Miriam is currently pursuing her second PhD at Eastern Michigan University, joined the SEMIS Coalition in 2018 as a research doctoral fellow, and was hired as a program associate in 2021. Miriam has been leading the DJ practices in the PBE initiative to help integrate them into the annual learning series. She also supports teacher coaching, curriculum development, and a photovoice coalition project. Miriam also coordinates annual newsletters, blog texts, and artistic production for SEMIS events.

She has lived in the United States since 2013 with her husband. As two good introverts, they love to stay at home doing nothing, but they also walk and ride their bikes near Lake Michigan and nature parks with their goofy dog, Sol. Miriam’s identity, hi/story, and social background have shaped her desire to fight for a more beautiful and equal world for the human and more-than-human community.


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Sarah Halson, Education Specialist, Outdoor Learning and Programming Support

Sarah has been a member of the SEMIS Coalition since 2009, when she joined as a community partner representing The Greening of Detroit. She supports teachers in their PBE curriculum planning, specializing in outdoor learning. Sarah also supports planning and facilitation of professional development, provides expertise in guiding new initiatives, classroom content, school inquiry projects, teacher tools and multimedia resources and connecting with our community partners.

Sarah received an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and Science, Technology and Society from Pitzer College in 1998. She has over 20 years of experience in field-based and school-based environmental education program development and management at several Metro Detroit nature centers and as the Environmental Education Director at the Greening of Detroit. She was selected as the Informal Science Educator of the Year by the Michigan Science Teachers Association in 2012.

Sarah lives in Oak Park, MI with her mom, wife (Kim), daughter (Maia), 2 cats (Dinah & Molly) and their dog (Bear.) In her free time, you may find Sarah singing, walking, birding, camping or snuggled on the couch with her daughter watching the latest Marvel movie.

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Willie King III, Program Associate

Willie serves as a Program Associate for the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition. In his role, Willie’s responsibilities consist of developing new place-based initiatives for youth activism and civic engagement, developing arts infused PBE initiatives, and cultivating stewardship and art based community partnerships. He also supports planning and facilitation of professional development, provides expertise in classroom content and helps curate social media.

Willie holds an undergraduate degree from Eastern Michigan University in History with a minor in Political Science. Willie also serves as the current alumni president of King’s Of Color Incorporated. Prior to joining the SEMIS Coalition, he served as an activist and mentor within the Ypsilanti Community for over 8 years and worked as a restorative graduate assistant, math intervention teacher and long term substitute at WIMAHI. Willie was also an employee with SEMIS partner, EcoWorks, in the Detroit Youth Energy Squad and was a Site Coordinator/Assistant Director within the Washtenaw Parks and Recreation.

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Ethan Lowenstein, Ph.D., Director

Dr. Ethan Lowenstein (He/His), is a Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Ethan serves as the Director of the SEMIS Coalition. His responsibilities include forming and nurturing strategic partnerships, strengthening the webs of relationships within our transformative community, and working with staff to actualize their visions. He has over two decades of experience in school systems change and designing and facilitating teacher professional learning in civic and place-based education.

In recognition of his service and impact, he has received the Champion of Engagement Award (Michigan Campus Compact), the Ronald Collins Distinguished Faculty Award (EMU), the John W. Porter Distinguished Chair in Urban Education (EMU), the Dean’s Award for Innovative Scholarship (EMU), the Dale Rice Award for Academic Innovation in AS-L and Community Engagement (EMU), and the New York City Board of Education Teacher of the Year Award for alternative schools. Before his career in higher education, Dr. Lowenstein taught high school Social Studies at Park East H.S., an alternative high school in East Harlem, New York City. Ethan lives in Ann Arbor, MI. He loves hanging out and cracking jokes with his family, cooking, feeding people, doing Tai Chi, and trying to create as much insect and plant diversity in his garden as possible, while attempting (mostly without success so far) to produce lots of food with little effort.

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Matt Siegfried, Historian and Cultural Landscapes Expert

Matt is a historian, writer and researcher. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University with degrees in History and Historic Preservation, much of his work has been on connecting local history to broad historical moments. With a focus on race, class, gender and power in our social landscape, Matt believes that the ground and built environment we walk through every day is alive with worlds of history and can speak to us about why we live the way we live.

In his role with the Coalition, Matt designs and facilitates adult professional development which focuses on social landscape histories, supports teachers in upper elementary through high school to design curriculum, and do historical research. For more about Matt’s work, please visit his website: mattsiegfriedhistory.com

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Lisa Voelker, Assistant Director

As Assistant Director for the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, Lisa’s responsibilities include place-based education curriculum design and facilitation for adult professional development, K-12 teacher curriculum design support and field experience coordination, working with the director to coordinate and supervise daily operations, and stewarding partnerships with community organizations and members.

Lisa holds particular expertise in Ecojustice Education, Social Foundations of Education, and STEAM – helping STEM teachers to incorporate the arts with rigorous STEM content. Lisa holds an undergraduate degree  in  Visual  Arts  Education and a Masters of Arts in Social Foundations of Education, both from Eastern Michigan University. Prior to joining the SEMIS Coalition, Lisa taught elementary and middle school visual arts in Ypsilanti Township at East Arbor Academy.

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