Connecting Learning with Action: the Ecology Center’s Recycling Education Program

One of 50 stories, from 50 years of action

By Matthew Woodbury

Since the 1970s, the Ecology Center has supported environmental education in Ann Arbor by teaching over 100,000 kids about recycling, composting, and zero-waste. The classroom programs are exciting, hands-on, and informational. Ongoing education for school children and adults in the city has created one of the longest-standing recycling programs in the United States, encouraged high participation rates in recycling programs, and built strong support for continued expansion.

“Through our work in the Ann Arbor community, around the State of Michigan, and beyond, we seek to stimulate awareness of the delicate balance upon which life depends, and to generate a sincere concern that will lead to action which will halt the tide of environmental destruction.” Prospectus for the Ecology Center, 1970.

Connecting environmental awareness and education to environmental action has been core to the Ecology Center’s mission since it was founded in 1970. During its inaugural year the Ecology Center organized an Environmental Film Festival with documentaries about oil slicks, urban noise, and smog; a Community Teach-In featuring workshops on environmental education, citizen action, and conservation organizing; and biweekly seminars inviting community members to discuss recycling, mass transportation, and water quality. These activities established a strong foundation for our ongoing program of environmental education for Michiganders of all ages.

Classroom Activities and Community Problem Solving

Educators know that if you want a community to do something new, you teach kids how to do it. That’s why youth education remains at the core of Ecology Center programming. To achieve long-term sustainability, it’s critical that the next generation knows and cares about the environment.

Since 2018, global youth-led climate strikes have shown how young people are educating their parents about an ecological issue, but this phenomenon isn’t new. Well before the climate crisis came into focus, the Ecology Center sought to normalize environmental education for kids, knowing that children who learned about topics like recycling, groundwater cycles, and household toxins go on to share their knowledge with parents and neighbors.

Teaching kids about environmental issues happening in their own neighborhoods brought Ann Arbor’s younger residents into conversations about the environment. During the 1970s, the Ecology Center provided voluntary assistance to schools in the form of curriculum ideas, classroom visits, and field trips. At the Center, teachers could consult a folder of materials full of lesson plans, visual aids, games, and activity guides. As a hub for information, educators accessed resources, joined ongoing programs like organic gardening education, and participated in community events.

In the spring of 1973, Ecology Center staff proposed an overhaul of Ann Arbor’s approach to environmental education. The city’s outdoor education program, established in 1961 as the result of a community petition, had declined to a point where schools offered limited options for students beyond the elementary level. Our proposal emphasized the importance of environmental awareness, informed action, and the active role both students and teachers could take in changing personal behaviors. Organized around two guiding principles of  “community problem solving” and “clarifying values,” the new curriculum advocated student-centered opportunities to cultivate environmental sensitivity, gain environmental knowledge, and practice environmental problem solving.

Hands-On and Minds-On Learning

A key early area of collaboration between the Ecology Center and schools was recycling education. The Ecology Center saw this partnership as an opportunity to make recycling part of students’ daily routines and in 1984 we published a recycling curriculum for K-12 students. Lessons emphasized building awareness of recycling’s benefits, increasing hands-on experiences with recycling, and understanding how students could make a difference in their own communities. Activities included a “pin the recycling on the recycling truck” game, paper-making workshops, and role-playing scenarios as ways to inform young people about making sustainable and eco-friendly purchases.

“We knew that kids loved getting involved and wanted to do more than just go on a nature hike and they could be a good source of inspiration to families to get out there and participate in the recycling program, that really worked because the Teachers could follow up with other school programs, and students could get extra credit for going home and getting their parents to recycle.” Wendy Wilson Clip: 12:15 - 12:52 [interview is here]

"I think kids are intrinsically interested in just about everything ... if there's an opportunity for them to see the bigger picture without making it too scary…[to build awareness] so that kids have a chance to see a situation and how they can make a difference[.].”  - Nancy Stone, Former Environmental Education and Membership Coordinator at the Ecology Center. 6:55-7:25 [interview is here]

Established in 1991, the Recycling & Education Station (RES) was the vision of the Ecology Center environmental educators Nancy Stone, Tara Ward, and Ruth Kraut. The RES was a kid- and family-friendly extension of the drop-off station that allowed visitors of all ages to experience the ins and outs of recycling first-hand. Eight large boards featured information about the problems created by consumption, the types of materials collected at the facility, and action items that both individuals and cities could take, visitors could also go inside and learn from hands-on activities.

The opening of Ann Arbor’s Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in 1995 provided an informative and popular location for the recycling education efforts. The Ecology Center played a substantial role in the development of the MRF education center (opened in 1996) and worked with the city to provide educational programs for all ages. Visiting the MRF allowed students to connect environmental knowledge learned in the classroom to what recycling looked like at the municipal level. In the last decade, our recycling education efforts included 1,100 classroom programs that have reached more than 25,000 students.

Recycling Ideas and Expanding Outreach

Connecting learning with action is at the core of our approach to environmental education. In the 1990s, a four-week program titled “Taking Action in Recycling” brought Ecology Center staff to third-grade classrooms in Ypsilanti, Willow Run, and Ann Arbor. After discussing the importance of sorting waste before recycling, students would tour both the Leslie Science Center and the Materials Recovery Facility. The final part of the program asked participants to create a “Classroom Outreach Project.” This included activities like making posters, writing letters to the school newspaper, or presenting to other classes about recycling.

Enthusiastic feedback from students, parents, and teachers has supported environmental education over the last fifty years. Even as Ann Arbor limited its investment in recycling services, we continued to partner with the city’s schools. The success and popularity of our work resulted in increased funding for environmental education. 

Over the last five years - as plastic pollution, depressed recycling markets, and reports of a crisis in the recycling industry dominated the news - the Ecology Center established creative education programs related to recycling and zero waste. In conjunction with Recycle Ann Arbor, we developed services for Washtenaw County schools that include materials collection and educating students about recycling. In 2018, we facilitated dozens of school staff recycling trainings and, together with the Michigan Recycling Coalition, drafted a new curriculum for Master Recycler Educators. Through a partnership with the City of Dearborn the Ecology Center created educational resources in Arabic, English, and Spanish that improved the quality of the city’s recycled materials. 

From modest beginnings, Ecology Center programs have empowered educators to inspire future generations about the importance of the environment. By both teaching students and encouraging them to act, recycling education builds the knowledge and attitudes that inform students’ choices as citizens and consumers. 

Each week this year we will be sharing one of 50 stories to celebrate 50 years of ongoing advocacy for healthy people and a healthy planet. Check back weekly for more, including further stories about environmental education focusing on organic community gardening, groundwater and water pollution, and energy. 

Research for these stories provided by the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan. For more details, check out our history archive.

Published on July 31, 2020