University of Michigan-Flint students recently surveyed a portion of the neighborhood around Durant-Turri-Mott (DTM) Elementary School to find ways to make it safer for students to get to and from the school.
Earth and Resource Science Assistant Professor Greg Rybarczyk is collaborating with the Crim Fitness Foundation on a national and state program designed to increase walking and biking to school along safe routes called “Safe Routes to School.”
Students in Rybarczyk’s “Sustainable Systems Seminar” got a first-hand look at the challenges facing students who walk to school, including traffic flows in the school’s parking lot.
“The purpose of this class is to provide students the tools and knowledge needed to plan for walking and biking, while at the same time forging partnerships between the university and community organizations such as the Crim Fitness Foundation,” said Rybarczyk. “The final student report will point to ways to increase walking and bicycling for DTM students which will in turn, increase their physical and mental health.”
Theresa Roach, with the Crim Fitness Foundation, says about 30% of the DTM students who were surveyed walk to school. The school houses students in the first through sixth grade, and has a population of over 30% special needs students.
What the UM-Flint students found were that in some spots, the sidewalks were lined by abandoned houses, and places where sidewalks had literally disappeared. Cracked concrete and steep inclines made the route even more difficult.
Roach says the information that the students collect will be included in a grant application to the federal government to help make sidewalk and other repairs.
“The goal is make it safe, easy, convenient, and fun for kids to walk to and from school,” explained Roach. “Washington Elementary School recently received a $330,000 grant for sidewalk repairs and education programs. We’re hoping for a similar amount here.”
Rybarczyk noted that by the time the course ends, the students will possess a skill-set that includes many basic planning, cartographic, and assessment skills that employers will be looking for when they enter the workforce. “The students are also exposed to increased networking opportunities that may help their career outlook,” he said.
Some of the students involved in the survey live only a short distance from the DTM neighborhood, and for them it’s both a great learning experience and a chance to help solve a community issue.
Senior Shane Kelley says walking through the neighborhood brings home the gravity of the problem.
“When you drive everywhere, you don’t realize how severe a few inches in the difference of sidewalk heights, or grass not being cut, can make to a person with disabilities,” noted Kelley.
Senior Jeff Martin was excited about working on the survey. He says trying to make things better in the neighborhoods is something he is passionate about.
“I’m the secretary of the Grand Traverse District Neighborhood Association, and what I have found to improve a neighborhood, you have to start with the little things,” claimed Martin. “People will get involved and respond to someone who cares and is trying to make a difference in a neighborhood.”
Both students agree they get a lot out of classes that examine real problems. Martin says another class he took looked at ways to get the community members involved in ways to better their neighborhood. Kelley recalled a class that surveyed housing to determine which abandoned houses need to be demolished.
The students will return in March to conduct a bicycling survey in the same neighborhoods that will be used for developing the Safe Routes to School Action Plan (SRTS). The survey will address the safety level of the streets surrounding DTM to determine what problems exist that can hinder children from riding their bicycles to school.
“My hope for the future is that collaborative efforts continue between the Department of Earth and Resource Science and local organizations such as the Crim Fitness Foundation so that community service learning becomes part of the teaching model,” noted Rybarczyk. “Increased collaborations will enhance student learning, increase networking opportunities for students, and provide local communities with outcomes they can use.”
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