Inner-city school children go green with Cards’ help
October 5, 2009 —
Many students at SVSU spend each day on campus, shuffling from classroom to classroom. Not Judy Herek.
The sociology senior is one of about 20 Cardinals in professor Brian Thomas’ environmental sociology course who head off campus once a week to teach local children about environmental issues.
“It’s such a worthwhile experience to get out of the classroom and get into the real world,” said Herek.
The students meet on Friday afternoons at an inner-city Saginaw community center. There, they lead an after-school program for children ages 9 to 13 that explores issues such as nutrition and the environmental impact of food choices, “green” jobs, gardening and recycling.
Activities are developed by Thomas’ students and vary each Friday. Some activities include helping the children develop their own healthy recipes and preparing their own snacks, growing plants in a hydroponic garden and encouraging the children to use their leisure time in creative ways.
“It’s great to get involved and set a positive example for young kids,” Herek said.
Environmental sociology is an unfamiliar subject to many outside the discipline. It is a specialized subfield that is more theoretical than experimental. Thomas’ upper-level course examines the interrelationships between physical and social environments, the differences between rural and urban environments and the spatial distribution of people and their activities.
Students still meet for campus meetings twice a week, but class time takes a group-oriented, seminar format. Student-led presentations fill the bulk of each session. Thomas says his aim is to shift the instructor’s role from subject expert to learning facilitator.
“It’s the opposite of the ‘chalk-andtalk,’” he said.
But it is the after-school mentoring sessions that mark the class as truly unusual. The program began this semester and is designed to promote learning — for both the children and the SVSU students — through community service.
The after-school program was the brainchild of Thomas, a passionate advocate of service-learning whom Herek said, “bites you with the enthusiasm bug.” Thomas’ interests in food, the environment, and public service became major themes of the program.
Thomas is a relatively new addition to the University but has already taken a leading role in his department as its chair. Herek and other students called him an inspiring and engaging teacher.
He has launched other programs at SVSU.
Next spring, he will lead a study abroad trip to China that will allow students to examine environmental issues in that nation first hand, including sustainable agricultural practices and the effects of rapid development.
Thomas also is a founding member of the Green Cardinal Initiative, a program that uses worms to convert dining-hall food waste into organic fertilizer. Children from the after-school program will travel to SVSU in two weeks to visit the greenhouse and see the worms in action.
Thomas explained that he has three expected outcomes for the students in his course besides mastering class content: the development of projectmanagement skills, the sharpening of critical-thinking abilities and the adoption of a commitment to community engagement that benefits society.
“We have 10,000 students just a few miles north of here [at SVSU’s main campus] who we should look at as a real resource to the community,” he said. “There are so many students who want to get involved but don’t know what to do next. This is a way to show them how.”
Thomas also said he believes a hands-on course such as this one — encouraging students to design and implement their own projects — is necessary for a full education.
“I feel like I’m learning from the kids just as much as they’re learning from us. And it feels great to be here.”