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Trish Fagg: Life and Legacy

Aug 06, 2011

This Summer, Au Sable’s founding Environmental Education Coordinator Trish Fagg received a surprise package in the mail.  Students from her first job as a high school biology teacher in New York compiled a scrapbook of pictures from their class and accompanied it with notes.  The pictures were fun, bringing back memories about old times, old jokes, and old projects.  But there was note in particular that stood out.  A former student wrote, “Ms. Fagg, you taught me how to love the Earth.  You made me realize it’s worth my time to preserve it.” 

Like any good program, the Au Sable Environmental Education Program has five goals and prioritizes 12 major environmental concepts for its students.  But if you asked Trish what she would count as success, it would be that each of the 120,000 K-12th grade students she’s encountered over the years would have those words on their lips.  Love the Earth.  Preserve it.

The “Heart Connection”

There’s a term Trish uses to describe the attachment the environmental education program strives to achieve between student and natural world: a “heart connection.” It starts with what she describes as the most gratifying part of her job (besides serving as Rocky the Raccoon during the puppet show), “I love seeing when the little light bulb goes on, when there’s that ‘oh wow’ moment that leads to a sense of wonder.”  

Encounter... leads to wonder... leads to love.  Dipping a net into the pond to pull out tadpoles, staring intensely through a microscope at a butterfly’s wings, seeing grouse snuggle down into the snow for insulation, these experiences at Au Sable are about forging that connection.  Trish created the program to do that.

Trish’s own “heart connection” developed during her family’s weekend ritual of traveling from her city home to her grandparents’ farms in rural Ohio.

Trish says, “My grandparents conveyed a love for the land and a stewardship ethic that was profound and left a lasting impression.  They gave me the opportunity to see how life advances through the seasons.”

In many ways, under Trish, student field trips to Au Sable became weekend trips to the farm.  Much like her experience at Au Sable, it was the physical place suffused with community that led Trish towards a deep love for the outdoors and the means to care for it.

Trish explains, “At Au Sable, I wanted to give children both the opportunity to experience what I had when I was their age [on the farm] as well as what I wish I had when I was their age.”

“Protecting Northern Michigan”

But while Trish made her “heart connection” with her grandparents’ farms, she also felt the cruel sting that this land she loved could be taken away.  When she was still young, a coal company stripped her paternal grandparents’ farm for coal.  Her grandparents owned all of their land except for the mineral rights.  

Trish says, “This experience had a profound impact on my life and what I chose to do with it.”

The tragic loss of this place she loved and the place where she learned to love guided her life course.  It also deepened the connection she wanted her students at Au Sable to make with the natural world: protect it because you love it.

This opportunity came to bear in a very tangible way in the early 1990s.  Au Sable received a Kellogg Foundation Grant to teach groundwater education.  With the oil and gas industry playing a growing role in Northern Michigan, it provided the opportunity to teach children about ground water and how it can become contaminated.

Trish says, "I was most proud of this program.  The Kellogg Foundation told us that of the money they distributed for ground water education, this program got the most out of the money they gave.  And in addition, the program didn’t just educate the children, it educated our teachers and chaperones as well.  They would keep coming to me and saying, 'We never knew this!'"

Once Trish was meeting with a board member who asked, "What do you see as the overarching goal of your program?"

She answered, "To protect the environment of Northern Michigan."

Food Webs, Knowledge Webs

When Trish started out, she found that forging these connections for child can be immensely difficult and deeply troubling.  A story she often tells is about going to a 3rd grade class one day to prep them for their visit to Au Sable.  The Au Sable lesson was on food webs, and seeing as she had just come from the grocery store, she decided to bring her groceries to class to use as a demonstration.  

She started by holding up a loaf of bread, asking, "Can you tell me where this bread came from?"

Hands shot up in the air, and a child responded, "From the grocery store."

Trish said, "That’s right.  But how about before the grocery store.  Where did this bread come from?"

There was a long pause, students’ wheels turning, until one boy raised his hand and said, "Well I went to the store once with my mom and saw a truck, and in the back, it had loaves of bread.  So it must have come on the bread truck."

Trish responded, “Well, how about before it came on the bread truck?  Where did it come from?”

The class went silent for a long time, so Trish used a different tact, saying, “Bread is made up of flour.  What makes up the flour we use in our bread?”

After a long silence, one child responded, “Is it ground up rocks?”

Astonished, Trish changed course again.  She asked, “Where does the water in our houses come from?”

No one knew.

On the ride home, the image of her grandparent’s farm was vivid in her mind.  She knew where bread and water came from when she was their age because she saw it.  It was plain before her eyes each weekend.  Flour ground from wheat, water from the well.  

When she returned to Au Sable, she formulated a program to take students back to the early 1900s when it was impossible to be ignorant of the sources of human subsistence.  It was called Michigan History, and quickly became one of the most popular programs at Au Sable.  Students interacted with historical characters from the 1900s.  With no light bulbs, automobiles, or grocery stores to keep students comfortable, the dependence on the natural world to meet these needs became strikingly obvious.  It produced “oh wow” moments.  They stepped onto the family farm.

Serve the School

While teaching children is the goal of education, new administrative policies and guidelines created an ever-changing education environment during Trish’s 34 years.  But it also gave rise to the environmental education program in the first place.  In March of 1977, Trish ran the first environmental education program at Au Sable with the Mancelona school system.  The program was a success, and she loved the work, but questions remained about future support for the program.  Two events in particular led the program to swell and become the environmental education program it is today.  First, she received strong administrative support.  Both Kalkaska and Mancelona principals felt that environmental education should be a part of each child’s learning experience.  Second, in 1976-1977, the Michigan Department of Education felt the same way and required that every school needed to teach environmental concepts by the 1978 school year.  Trish was ready to meet the challenge.  Seizing on this opportunity, she invited schools to participate in Au Sable’s programs to fulfill their requirements.  By 1978, the curriculum at Au Sable expanded to fill their environmental concepts requirement, and Au Sable’s environmental education program became a fixture in the school system. 

Over the next thirty years, these requirements changed repeatedly.  With each progression, Trish folded the environmental ed program into the new Michigan standardized test (MEAPs) and grade level content expectations (GLCEs).  The bottom line was making sure that she did everything possible to support teachers in helping them do what they were tasked to do.

She also went above and beyond to make sure that the program not only met science requirements but also connected with the other subjects students were learning: math, language arts, social studies.  Trish also convened roundtable meetings with teachers to discuss how the program could best meet their needs.  It kept the program relevant and cutting edge.  

It was this level of commitment to high quality standards and content that built the program from a single school, Mancelona Public, to 36 school districts and 11 counties throughout the Grand Traverse Bay area.

Future Leaders

The opportunity to spread the program's influence beyond the Grand Traverse Bay area arose in 1982 when the environmental education program's growth coincided with the birth of the college program.  Au Sable became classified as a "vocational institution" when the college program began, and in 1982, Trish taught her first college course on 'The Foundations of Environmental Education.'  The course taught hands-on, applied, skill-based lessons and assignments for her students in environmental education.  This course soon morphed into the internship program.  

Trish never strayed from teaching vocationally over the next 30 years, saying, "With the internship, one of the things I stressed is looking at each one's giftedness and seeing that they use that giftedness in service, to children, teachers, chaperones.  The internship moved interns out of their comfort zone, and seeing them gain confidence and shine was a blessing.  We'd think through career goals, and later I would hear about how students had found their dream job because of the internship, or received a teaching assistantship in graduate school, or be better prepared for their first year of teaching because they knew how to make lesson plans.  The internship program was an eye opener."

An eye-opener for 230 interns over 30 years.

As a former intern put it, "It was the seasons spent as an environmental education intern...that had the greatest impact on my life.  It was through these internships that I gained a greater knowledge and passion for the creation and the means to more effectively convey the message of stewardship with those of the next generation."

The internship had a profound impact on one of Trish's former interns in particular, Paul Wiemerslage, Trish's successor.  The internship led Paul into a Master's program in Environmental Education at Western Washington University and ultimately back to Au Sable.

Generations to Come

Starting in the fall, Paul will inherit the environmental education program, and Trish couldn’t be more thrilled.

“We just started our 3rd generation of students coming to Au Sable.  I think that signals a time to step down!” she laughs.  “I see grandmothers in the grocery store who came to Au Sable.  It’s exciting to think about how teaching generation after generation can make an impact.  I’m so happy Paul is picking up the torch, finishing the third generation, then the fourth....  That’s how we make change.”  

As for Trish, during the environmental internship, she challenges students to step outside of their comfort zone, to identify their giftedness, and to be persistent.

When asked about thinking to the future, she sounds a lot like many of the interns, “I’m not sure where my path will take me.”  And then, “It seems like wherever I go, my giftedness is in environmental education.”

(As if we didn’t know.)


To honor Trish and to continue critical environmental education for our children, Au Sable established an Environmental Education Fund to ensure that this important work, and Trish’s legacy, endures. Make a donation in Trish’s honor to the Environmental Education Fund online (www.ausable.org/donate) or send a check to ‘Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies,’ 7526 Sunset Trail NE, Mancelona, MI 49659.