What does a Great Lakes prairie have to do with classroom learning?  NeinasElementary, in collaboration with The Greening of Detroit, DPS and Friends of The Rouge, engaged students outside the classroom in their local ecology. Their research and partnerships led to a student designed rain garden design, re-seeding a Rouge River prairie with native “seed bombs” and a greater understanding of the complex ecology of their watershed. Read more of their story, below.

Essential Question: What does it mean to be sustainable in Southwest Detroit? 

Teacher Team/Teacher Affiliate: Amy Lazarowicz

Community issue or need addressed: Raising community awareness about native plants and gardening.

Place-Based Activity Description:

Neinas Elementary, a Detroit Public School located in Southwest Detroit, has been involved with SEMIS since it’s beginning. Amy Lazarowicz was the lead teacher who began attending SEMIS Coalition meetings in 2011, focusing on the essential question: “What does it mean to be sustainable in SouthWest Detroit?” Following a community mapping projects, Neinas Elementary decided to partner with Detroit Public Schools and Friends of the Rouge on the “Our LAND” project (standing for Learn, Admire, Nurture and Dream), which focused on habitat restoration, human impacts and sustainability of Detroit’s prairie. Students visited the Rouge Prairie Pathway, where they compared and contrasted the Forest and Prairie habitats, classified and sorted prairie grasses and other native plants and used various tools to observe insects and animals. This project helped to support the schoolyard garden project adjacent to the school, including a partnership with University of Michigan professor Chris Burke that evaluated native plants and specifically rain gardens and how different conditions affected plant life. Students toured the University of Michigan Dearborn Environmental Interpretive Center, and created designs for their rain garden as well as “seed bombs” for the prairie restoration projects. Students presented both at their school and at the community forum, and this project has evolved to involve other teachers at Neinas that have taken on different elements of sustainability in Southwest Detroit, as well as maintaining the school garden project.

SEMIS Connections:

  • SEMIS PD on water quality and the history of Detroit (Summer 2010: Water, a Hidden History)
  • Greening of Detroit support through Sarah Halston
  • University of Michigan support 

Resources used from outside sources:

  • Earth Partnership for Schools training for Amy Lazarowicz
  • Detroit Public Schools supported the field trips to the Rouge River
  • The City of Detroit and Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. provided support for the building of the school garden project.

Community Partners:

  • Greening of Detroit (continued by consultant Sarah Halston) supported the development of schoolyard habitat gardens and raised beds in the converted lot next to Neinas.
  • University of Michigan Science Education professor, Chris Burke, suported the rain garden project
  • Friends of Rouge Park supported tours of the Rouge Prairie Pathway.

Other Teachers/School Staff Involved in PBE at the School:

Three teachers worked together as a team to complete action projects (including science, ESL and special education classes). Following Amy Lazarowicz’s school garden project, a partnership with Matrix Theatre Company and Neinas Elementary evolved to integrate STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) concepts around water quality. In the 2013 -2014 school year, June Clora and Lisa Lipscomb benefited from both direct scientific exploration of the Great Lakes on a NOAA freshwater boat tour as well as reflection on the meaning of their lessons through their own theatre production. In a play titled “The Story of My Community” students examined community life and issues, including the concept of “Ghost Waters”, or underground streams and waterways. Their activities included exploring where the water in sewers and storm drains comes from and goes to, participation in community walks, and writing and performance of a new play entitled “Our Community.”

Outcomes for Students’ Learning:

The fifth grade classes involved with Amy Lazarowicz “Our Land” and rain garden projects developed a deep connection to the local environment. They were supported through journal writing, prairie observations, STEM data collection on plant life conditions, and understanding the importance of Michigan native plants to water and ecosystem health. Neinas students also made two presentations at the SEMIS Summer Institute – they took participants on a tour of their gardens, as well as presented the “Ghost Waters” play to parents, teachers and partners at the Summer Institute, and extension of the deep learning about water and native species. Such experiences, as well as the design and implementation of rain gairden and see bomb projects, are evidence of the student centered focus of Neinas Elementary educaors through the support of the SEMIS community.

Outcomes for Educator Learning:

The teachers at Neinas have benefited from a long-term relationship with SEMIS and four years in the Coalition. Neinas teachers have been engaged in professional development regarding the “Ghost Waters” investigation into the history of water and hidden water resources in the city in 2012, with a special training with Matrix Theatre Company that developed into a partnership that continues today. In 2013, a focus on agriculture, education on CAFO’s and community activism in sustainable agriculture helped to spur projects in gardening and food production for school lunches and partnership with Sarah Halston, formerly of Greening of Detroit, to improve their school garden space. Through all of these elements, the school has been able to use the strengths of the SEMIS Coalition staff and partners to take on different aspects of their essential question, and build on what it means to be sustainable in Southwest Detroit.

Powerful Place Based Education Characteristics:

  • Forming community partnerships
  • Collaborating with other teachers in the school
  • Creating lessons and projects that provide for student voice and student driven inqiury  
  • Providing opportunities for students to see the “results” their work in the school and community 
  • Visioning the future to discuss and debate, “What should our community be?”
  • Integrating the arts into lessons and projects
  • Conducting meaningful community mapping/inventory activities
  • Helping students to take action to protect, preserve, re‐vitalize a place  
  • Putting students in the position of “teacher” (e.g., during Community Forum, PBE conference, Summer Institute, presentations to their community)
  • Helping students to see themselves as part of a watershed and the Great Lakes community

Methods for data collection:

  • Community walks and tours of Rouge Prairie Pathway
  • Community mapping
  • Data collection on soil condition, water temperature and native plant growth rate

Assessment measures:

  • Performances at Community Forum and Summer Institute sharing data collected
  • Final design and installation of garden space, and journals documenting this process
  • Interdisciplinary tie-ins
  • Other teachers working with Ms. Lazarowicz’s class were able to integrate their lessons into a production on the “Ghost Waters” of Detroit, as well as make connections with ESL lessons through journal writing.


S.IP.M.1 Inquiry involves generating questions, conducting investigations, and developing solutions to problems through reasoning and observation

S.IP.05.13 Use tools and equipment (spring scales, stop watches, meter sticks and tapes, models, hand lens) appropriate to scientific investigations.

S.IP.04.11,12/S.IP.05.11 Make purposeful observations of the natural world. Generate questions based on observations.

S.IP.04.14/S.IP.05.13 Use tools that aid observation and data collection.

S.IA.04.12 /S.IA.05.12 Share ideas and evaluate data and claims about science through purposeful conversation in collaborative  groups.

S.RS.04.18/S.RS. 05.17 Describe the effect humans and other organisms have on the balance of the natural world.


4 – H3.0.8 Describe past and current threats to Michigan’s natural resources; describe how Michigan worked in the past and

continues to work today to protect its natural resources. (G, C, E)

4 – G5.0.1 Assess the positive and negative effects of human activities on the physical environment of the United States.


CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of

reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS. ELA -Reading Standards. CCRA.SL.4 Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.


5-ESS3-1 Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth’s resources

and environment.

4-ESS2-2. Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features.

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