CSUS student proposes legislation to expand sustainability education in Michigan schools

Recent CSUS alumna Courtney Boersema, along with instructor Bob Wilson and MSU Sustainability director Amy Butler, created legislation to include sustainability curriculum in the Michigan Green Schools Program.

Elementary school students work in raised garden beds with the help of adults.

Thousands of school children across hundreds of schools in Michigan participate in various environmentally friendly activities every year to help earn their school an official Michigan Green School certification. While this program promotes much needed efforts to address local and global environmental problems, one student has seen opportunity to elevate the benefits of this program.

In 2020, Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS) student, Courtney Boersema [Winter 2020 grad, Environmental Studies and Sustainability major], mentored by CSUS instructor Bob Wilson and MSU Sustainability director Amy Butler, presented draft legislation she created to amend the Michigan Green Schools Program to State Representative Julie Brixie’s office. Rep. Brixie is currently serving her second term representing Michigan’s 69th House District, comprising the City of East Lansing, the campus of Michigan State University, and Meridian, Williamstown and Locke Townships.

Courtney Boersema
Courtney Boersema

Boersema’s proposed legislation seeks to amend the current Green Schools Program to include a specific sustainability curriculum component, requiring schools to teach courses on environmental sustainability, in addition to the current requirements of participating in environmental stewardship activities such as recycling or planting a native garden. Now in 2021, Rep. Brixie’s office is working with the Natural Resources chairman, Rep. Gary Howell, to split up the bill to ensure there is bi-partisan sponsorship.

State Rep. Brixie says of this legislation, “I am so excited to introduce this legislation to amend the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act to expand the ‘green school’ designation criteria to include schools that offer environmental sustainability curriculum. I sincerely appreciate the hard work that Professor Bob Wilson and his students in his CSUS 464 Environmental Policy Making Course have put into developing this public policy. By encouraging schools to offer environmental sustainability curriculum, we will help educate and nurture Michigan’s next generation of environmental and sustainability advocates.”

As the current Green Schools Program stands, schools qualify as a designated Green School if they conduct certain environmental stewardship activities, but there is no requirement to provide students with the educational background as to why those actions are being done and why they are important. The addition of an environmental sustainability curriculum category for the requirements, as Boersema has proposed, can aid in providing students a more robust science-based context to help students understand how and why their environmental stewardship activities are impacting the environment.

Butler says of the new legislation, “As Bob Wilson and I worked with Courtney on this draft legislation, we all put a lot of thought on how to place more emphasis on sustainability as a whole. This legislation enhances the original legislation by making it more comprehensive, really taking it to the next level.”

Wilson adds, “The current program teaches individual steps that individual people can do to be environmentally conscious. This new legislation takes a more holistic approach in understanding sustainability as a part of a system.”

Green Schools Program

Michigan Green Schools logoThe Michigan Green Schools Program has its roots in student activism, as it began in 2005 as a proposal from students and teachers in the Hartland Consolidated School District who wanted to develop a way to support Michigan’s environmental goals. The idea was that various environmental stewardship activities, such as planting trees, reducing energy consumption, or installing hydration stations to reduce plastic bottle use, represented a certain number of points and any school that earned at least ten points within an academic year was awarded official Michigan Green School status.

The students and teachers of Hartland proposed this program to their representative at the time, Representative Joe Hune, who then introduced a bill, Public Act 146, in the Michigan House in 2006. Public Act 146 was approved by a majority of the House and then passed onto the Michigan Senate, which also approved the measure. In May of 2006, Governor Jennifer Granholm sign the bill, creating the Green Schools Program.

During the time when the original Green Schools Program legislation was working its way through the Michigan House and Legislature in 2006, Wilson worked on the Green Schools Program legislation as Senior Counsel to the Senate Natural Resources Committee, to help create the reward structure for schools who were implementing these environmental and sustainability elements. Butler was working at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality at the time and was involved in developing the framework for the Green Schools Program as the DEQ representative.

This new Green Schools amendment began as a seed of an idea many months ago. Boersema was enrolled in Wilson’s Environmental Policymaking course (CSUS 464) and the class was discussing practical applications of the lessons they were learning. This discussion sparked Boersema interest and a desire to take action around sustainability and public policy. Wilson and Boersema talked about developing a project related to sustainability education, and the idea of addressing sustainability education through the Green Schools Program was a natural fit given Wilson’s previous work in helping write the current Green Schools Program law. Butler joined the project after a guest lecture during that same class and the trio got to talking about the idea. For the new amendment to the Green Schools Program Boersema developed, working with Wilson and Butler provided the rich depth and perspective necessary to do this work.

Boersema says of the experience working with Wilson and Butler, “This has made me want to become more engaged in my community and more active in political action around environmental issues. These issues are extremely important to me, and the future of the planet as we know it. I want to help change the world for the better, and I will continue to try with all of my being to make that happen.”

Looking Towards the Future

Boersema’s new Green Schools legislation was intended to be introduced in spring of 2020, which coincided with first wave of COVID-19 cases and state-wide shutdowns. Now in 2021, nearly a year after Boersema’s proposed legislation was supposed to be introduced, it is finally winding its way through the legislative process.

Boersema says of this time, “When the bill wasn’t introduced, and I was saddened because I thought we lost our chance at revamping the Green Schools program and changing Michigan’s education for the better. Now, the bill is supposed to finally be introduced and after the waiting and roller coaster of emotions, I am excited and anxious to see what happens next.”

Boersema’s work has spurred additional sustainability-related policy making, with the Green Schools legislation being expanded to include 2 new amendments and an additional bill. These changes complement Boersema’s original legislation by specifying a definition of sustainability and also by broadening the purpose of the whole environmental at education act to be consistent with the importance of sustainability and citizen engagement. The new additions also provide for a focus on climate change as a global sustainability issue. These amendments will likely be co-sponsored by the current chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Wilson, reflecting on his work in policy-making and education, says “We need to teach students how to constructively engage in the real policy making process, through this they are learning how to be engaged citizens in this state and in this country.”

Butler adds to this notion of supporting real-world experiences saying “Sustainability has provided us that vehicle where you have to look at solving these wicked problems and give students the opportunity to take a hand in solving these problems. Using Campus as a Living Lab and providing these hands on, experiential learning opportunities to students is a strong focus in the MSU Sustainability framework.” Boersema’s work on the Green Schools legislation has been exactly that pivotal, real-world experience Wilson and Butler seek to create and support for their students.

Boersema says of this new Green School legislation, “My hope for the future of this legislation is that it catalyzes the integration of environmental sustainability education into our state’s K-12 curriculum, and beyond. This addition to the Michigan Green Schools Program can act as a stepping-stone for that goal. Including more sustainability curriculum would undoubtedly benefit Michigan, building a foundation of respect and problem-solving skills in our future generations and future leaders. It would also make Michigan a role model for other states, showing that this education is not only possible to implement, but extremely important for all of our futures.”

Now seeing the fruits of their labor on the precipice of becoming realized, Butler says of this experience, “I love being able to give back to the community by sharing my expertise; experience; and guidance. It is really rewarding to see how much the students grow, and how it prepares them for entering their careers, boots on the ground and ready to go.”

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