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MIS partnership with Adrian College makes the outdoors a classroom

06/14/2015, 12:00am EDT
Exploring outdoors at MIS

BROOKLYN, Mich. — A group of middle-schoolers tumble out of their bus and anxiously, if not uncharacteristically, prepare for a science lesson. But this classroom has no chalkboard, no desks, no bell will ring to tell them it’s time to move on, and not a single one of them is staring into a video screen.

They are surrounded by the gently swayed landscape of the Irish Hills, sculpted by glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. One of the larger patches of hardwood forest at the site snuggles up to a large pond, and rolling pastures with several pockets of wetlands dot the wide panoramic view.

This is a school, but not one defined by convention. These kids are learning about the outdoors, the environment, invasive species, water quality, wildlife, and symbiotic relationships in nature at Michigan International Speedway, with some math and physics lessons thrown in for good measure.

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They are part of the Track and Explore program, which was hatched a few years ago through a unique and innovative partnership between MIS and Adrian College. Adrian provides some of its faculty, its students as instructors, and MIS provides the 1,400 acre classroom.

For MIS president Roger Curtis, who has instituted several creative outside-the-box programs at the sprawling race track property, such as a wine and beer festival and a huge country concert, the concept made perfect sense. Mr. Curtis serves on a local school board, and brought numerous “green” projects to MIS.

“This all started with the folks at Adrian College and I talking about the lack of partnerships in the area, and we decided we ought to do something as a team,” he said. “You put higher education and a race track together, and Track and Explore was born.”

The program, now in its fourth year, has brought more than 4,000 middle school students from 23 Michigan area schools to MIS to enhance their education in science, technology, engineering and math. It’s the science part that gets the kids outdoors, learning about native hardwoods, peering into test tubes filled with water samples, examining the filtering effect of wetlands, and seeing firsthand how invasive some nonnative plants can be.

“We’ve always heard race fans tell us how this place is so different from other tracks, and how we are really NASCAR in a park, and that really gives us an opportunity to do some creative things at MIS,” Mr. Curtis said. “It might surprise some people that don’t know about us that MIS has several protected wetlands, hiking trails, and woods. There’s a lot here besides a race track.”

Mr. Curtis credits Adrian College vice president and dean of academic affairs Agnes Caldwell with providing the vision and the energy to get the program rolling, and allowing it to grow and expand since its inception. Adrian College teacher education professor Penny Cobau-Smith, who helps run the program, said MIS offers a learning experience that the middle-schoolers can’t access elsewhere.

“Combining something fun with something truly educational has made this a very rewarding venture for all of us,” Ms. Cobau-Smith said. “We’ve had fifth-graders who have never seen a tadpole until they came out here.”

Grant money from several sources helps fund the project, and the teacher education and biology students from Adrian College take the reins when the middle-schoolers show up. The teachers and biologists of tomorrow are receiving real world training, all while introducing the students of today to the outdoors — the environment, ecosystems, habitat — all at a place where for two weekends each summer, upwards of 150,000 racing fans flood the terrain.

MIS has nine campgrounds and nearly 9,000 campsites to help accommodate that throng. For most of the other 50 weeks on the calendar, deer, groundhogs, geese and wild turkeys might outnumber the humans.

Rebecca Wenk, a biology major from nearby Macon, said she is thrilled to work with the students, and excited to see their eyes opened to the natural wonders around them.

“Some kids know absolutely nothing about nature or wildlife when they come here, but they leave with knowledge they’ll be able to use for the rest of their lives,” she said. “I’ve even had some of the children tell me that after going through the program, they want to become a scientist or a biologist. That was me when I was a little kid.”

Mr. Curtis said Track and Explore supercharges the learning experience, introducing an awareness of the complex environmental challenges facing our world.

“You can learn about things in a book, but sometimes you have to see it and touch it to really understand,” he said. “Our hope is that this program not only educates these students, but also gives them a sense of responsibility and let’s them see the role they can all play in the stewardship of the outdoors.”

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