Algonquin Elementary School teacher utilizes outdoor learning to enhance youth education

Behind Algonquin Elementary School in Clay Township was once an unkept trail and pond that is now an emerging outdoor classroom.

In 2023, 5th-grade teacher Nikki DeGowske and her students began using this outdoor space behind the school to engage in science and nature studies, picking up on an earlier idea originally explored in 2007.

When she noticed how much her kids loved being outside after taking them to the Howell Nature Center for camp, she decided to walk her students out to the trail.

“We went back there and I was just really sad at how bad it had gotten,” DeGowske says. “I knew it wasn’t perfect but we’ve always been able to at least walk the trail and sit down but the overgrowth had taken over.”

A toad crawls up a student's arm.

After taking my students out there, they told me we should do something about this DeGowske says. The students created a list with their ideas which was then shared on Facebook.

“It kind of just blew up from there,” DeGowske says. “Social media has been really powerful with this project in a positive way.”

The process of reusing this space took some work, DeGowske says. We had to clean up a lot of overgrowth in the area so people could actually sit at the benches or walk the trail, she says.

Kaitlyn Barnes, biologist with the Michigan DNR, turns over a log so students can examine what’s living underneath.“You could never walk around our pond because it was so overgrown,” DeGowske says. “My husband and I did a lot of clearing and cleaning all of that up and now I can see my kids all the way around the pond.”

With the help of local supporters like the St. Clair Flats Waterfowlers, Algonac Rotary Club, and  Algonac Lions Club, the outdoor classroom has begun to blossom.

The trail is 880 feet, with a dock and benches along the trail. Inside the space, there’s an owl box with some educational signage that was put in place by Gerrit Cooper who is working toward his Eagle Scout badge. There’s also a wood duck box. This year, the students are working on a project to create a storybook trail that will add information about the living creatures that make the trail their home.

Since the reuse of this space, DeGowske says they’ve hosted an education night with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Friends of the St. Clair River to talk about the natural resources and invasive species like Phragmites or a type of grass that lives in the outdoor classroom. They’ve also hosted a Bioblitz event where students identify as many species as possible in a certain area over a short period of time.

“Kids are out there turning over logs and going ‘what’s this and why is that like that’ or ‘look at that tree’ and then going inside and researching some of those so I like the investigative part of that process,” she says.

Kylie Dobbs, a former 5th-grade student in Nikki DeGowske’s class collects samples from the pond at their outdoor classroom. Kylie Dobbs, a former student of DeGowske’s who was part of last year's outdoor classroom group and attendee of the 2023 Bioblitz event says one of her favorite things to do was to go in the water and scoop out all the bugs.

“It was really fun to go out there and see what was there and learn about some new things,” Dobbs says.

One of the things the kids have noticed is trash pollution in the pond from people not caring, DeGowske says. The students are gaining an understanding and appreciation for nature and want to keep that area clean which will impact our future, she says. 

This outdoor classroom teaches students not only science topics but also things like public discourse and how to communicate with leaders on things they want to see change, she says.

“Every year the project is student driven,” DeGowske says. “The kids come up with ideas and we try to make those things happen.”

DeGowske recently applied for a grant to help support plans to replace the original gravel trail and says there will also be a grand reopening of the trail and their 2nd annual Bioblitz event on May 24th.

It’s been really cool to see the community come together, she says. She adds it’s not just a school space, it’s for the community too.
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Read more articles by Genevieve Fox.

Genevieve Fox is an award-winning journalist from Detroit. Since graduating from Michigan State University, she has built a solid background in environmental reporting and previous experience in radio broadcasting and photography at Great Lakes Echo and WKAR. She is now a freelance writer and a project editor for Metromode's series Macomb Live, Work, Play and Parks and Trails. When not working, she loves spending time outdoors and reading a good book. More by Genevieve Fox.