Congratulations to Ellen Koehler, MSU Tollgate Farm’s new MSU Place-Based Extension Educator and Education Manager

At Tollgate, you’ll often hear the question posed, “Do you know where your food comes from?” Utilizing the farm as the ‘place’ of place-based education, Tollgate programs promote understanding of the importance of agriculture in our daily lives as they increase learning outcomes, community connections, and appreciation of the natural world. With the farm as a living laboratory, Tollgate meets its mission through experiential place-based education about sustainable agriculture, community food systems, and natural resources.  

But what exactly does the term place-based education mean? David Sobel, author of Place- and Community-based Education describes place-based education as “an approach to teaching and learning that starts with the local and addresses two critical gaps in the experience of many children now growing up in the United Sates: contact with the natural world and contact with the community. It offers a way to extend young people’s attention beyond the classroom to the world as it actually is, and to engage them in the process of devising solutions to the social and environmental problems they will confront as adults.” 

Ellen Koehler, Tollgate Education Coordinator since 2016, is passionate about deepening the learning that takes place at Tollgate through placed-based agriculture and environmental education. Collaborating with staff, schools, and partner organizations, Ellen works to create positive change in our local communities and meet the needs of learners through research-based content and methods. When learners visit the farm, they not only explore science phenomena; they begin to investigate how they can make a positive difference in the world around them.

As part of a strong Tollgate team, Ellen designs, develops, and delivers meaningful educational programs for adults and youth; plans educational community-building events; and furthers diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at the farm. In addition to spearheading the financial aid process at the farm, Ellen leads programs for school and community groups, leadership development and specialty camps for teens, an environmental leadership youth council, a series for home vegetable gardeners, and a professional development series for educators about culturally responsive place-based education.

Ellen has continued her educational leadership studies through a mix of coursework and field-based practicums at the University of Michigan and Antioch University of New England. She has had the opportunity to collaborate widely with educators across the globe who inspire learners through place-based education. Ellen serves on the Trainer Bureau for the North American Association of Environmental Education and is a Certified Environmental Educator. In 2021, Ellen earned her Master of Education with concentrations in place-based education, sustainability, and equity.  

At Tollgate, we help youth and adults understand where their food comes from and so much more. As Tollgate’s new MSU Place-Based Extension Educator and in her new role as Education Manager, Ellen plans to continue to collaborate with colleagues, schools, community partners, and learners themselves to build healthier communities through authentic meaningful place-based teaching and learning.

‘Our true destiny…is a world built from the bottom up by competent citizens living in solid communities, engaged in and by their places.’ – David W. Orr

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Outdoor Adventure Camp: Looking Forward to Another Summer of Exciting Wilderness Skill-Building Experiences

Campers at the 2021 Outdoor Adventure Camp had a blast learning wilderness survival skills and testing their limits on the rock wall, kayaking the Huron River, and tubing down the Argo Cascades. 12-14 year old campers at our Outdoor Adventure Survival Camp not only learned important survival skills like how to build a fire and how to signal for help in an emergency, they also bonded with fellow campers through team-building activities and skill building challenges.

Each day at camp was packed full of hands on activities to keep campers engaged and active. Camp started on Monday with an introduction into Leave No Trace Principles, a chance to try out the slack line, and demonstrations on how to make fruit leather and GORP. Campers also started on their shelter building STEM activity in the forest and continued to add to it all week. Tuesday campers got to go fishing, learn about the 10 essentials for survival, and made a solar oven to roast s’mores. On Wednesday, campers had the chance to learn to kayak on the Huron River in Ann Arbor and tube down the Argo Cascades. Finally on Thursday night, campers set up tents and spent the night at Tollgate Farm, learning about astronomy and cooking their dinner over an open fire. On Friday, campers showed off their shelters, performed skits to teach each other Leave No Trace Principles, and had popsicles and said good bye to new friends.

We cannot wait to see returning and new campers in summer 2022 for Outdoor Adventure Camp. Keep checking the MSU Tollgate Farm summer camp website for updates on registration! Got questions? Email Ellen Koehler at

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Growing Kindness: The Edu-Garden Bee Kind Crew

As we wrap up a wonderful 2021 growing season for the Tollgate education garden, we want to recognize our edu-garden volunteers, each of whom tirelessly gave of their time and creativity to help create and care for a fun child-friendly garden space. The edu-garden beautifully bloomed in 2021 under the loving care of volunteers Kathy Begin, Dawn Snook, and Nancy Turner.

Tollgate educational programs incorporate plant science and practical aspects of growing food locally and sustainably. The gardens and grounds across the farm afford a living laboratory to discover, investigate, and explore the world of plants in hands-on ways.  The overarching goal for the education garden is for school children and campers to be actively engaged in the gardening process. Kids are allowed to investigate science phenomena; sow, weed, and water; and harvest and cook with the produce.  

The edu-garden cohort became fast friends as they helped provide new and ‘tried and true’ educational elements in the garden – plant scavenger hunts, student-made garden signs, experimental fall cover crop plots, investigation of good and bag bugs, a pizza garden, a tea garden, pollination, irrigation, and much more. During the pandemic, these dedicated volunteers. also known as the Bee Kind Crew, helped staff pivot our Plants and Their Partners program from an in-person to virtual program, incorporating themes of kindness to others, supporting pollinators, and growing food for others.  

The edu-garden continues to grow into a fun, inviting place for kids, where staff and volunteers sow, weed, water, and investigate alongside children. The edu-garden is an essential element of the overall education happening on the farm. Thank you does not begin to describe how grateful we are for all the hard work put in by our fabulous edu-garden volunteers. The small but mighty crew rolled up their sleeves to dig in the dirt and share their love of gardening with our young learners. 

We thank our edu-garden volunteers and are continually inspired by their generosity, commitment, and effort which have made this year in the edu-garden such a success. For more information or to join this amazing crew, email

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2021 Summer Camp Reflection

It is the middle of September and all the summer camp activities of 2021 have now come to a close—giving us the opportunity and time to reflect about what an amazing summer it was. After over a year of virtual programming we were beyond grateful that 2021 in-person summer camp programs got approved. There were some changes from our past camps, however, regardless of these changes we came together, tried new things, and had an amazing time exploring, learning, and supporting each other!

Despite the challenges of this year’s camp season, we were able to host and fill 11 different camps- including 3 new themes! From catching an 8lb bass in Tollgate Pond to walking a goat through the forest—each week of camp was a new and exciting adventure thanks to you all!

Of course, we also couldn’t have done it without our “camp counselors” which because of the last-minute nature of the camp, was made up of all Tollgate Locals including the Farm Director, Camp Coordinator, Educational Coordinator, Assistant Educational Coordinator, Assistant Camp Coordinator, 4-H Program Coordinator, Horse Camp Coordinator, Garden Education Coordinator and more– all wearing many hats to get everything done.

This has been a summer to remember and we will forever cherish the wonderful memories and friendships that were made this past summer. We hope that your camper(s) will too!

We wouldn’t be MSU Tollgate Farm without all of you—Keep on exploring!

From all of us at MSU Tollgate Farm,  Thank you!

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MSU Tollgate Farm Steward Teen Leadership Program 2021

What is a Steward? A steward is a person whose responsibility it is to take care of something. This experience offers teens a chance to enrich, mentor, and lead campers while gaining valuable leadership and life skills. In a positive educational environment, teens experience the responsibilities associated with potential career paths before entering college. The Tollgate Camp Teen Steward (15-19 yrs) and Tollgate Steward-in-Training (13-14 yrs) positions are for teens interested in gaining experience working with campers in the farm setting. 

The Stewards-in-Training (SIT) program is the start of the progressive MSU Tollgate Teen Leadership Program. Stewards-in-Training are 13-14 years of age and must have the ability to commit to one full week of camp and no more than 4 weeks. SITs serve as role models for campers during activities.

The Stewards program is for teens 15-19 years of age as volunteer assistants to the educational leaders and role models for both SITs and campers. Stewards develop a deep understanding and knowledge of the farm and our educational camp program and develop skills which can be called upon as they move forward through their academic and work careers.

This camp season, we needed our SIT and Stewards more than ever to help us navigate camp in these unprecedented times. Not only did our SIT and Stewards come ready to support our limited staff and smaller camper groups, they stewarded campers through the camp many know and love after more than a year of interrupted school and changes in routines.

Each morning our Stewards and SITs came ready to help with camp chores to get everything set up to start the day. They then helped welcome our campers at our new check-in location and guided them throughout the day through their camp activities with their educational leader. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Stewards and SITs had their own team building and leadership activities where they explored what makes a strong team and how to be an effective leader. These activities and games are applicable to camp situations with their own campers but also to their own daily lives and future careers. After camp on Tuesdays, Stewards and SITs met with our camp staff to reflect on the highs and lows of their camp days and brainstorm ways to more effectively steward campers.

Outside of their camp weeks, Stewards and SITs were invited to our Mid-Summer Celebration to hear speakers, engage in team-building activities, eat, and celebrate all their accomplishments and growth. At the end of the camp season, our Stewards and SITs helped clean up from a busy camp season and celebrated the closing of camp with food, games, and paper plate awards. We highlight the strengths of these incredible teens and celebrated all over their growth over the season. We are incredibly grateful to these Stewards and SITs for their hard work, enthusiasm, and positive attitude that made MSU Tollgate Farm Summer Camp 2021 a year we will never forget! We look forward to seeing the next group of Stewards and SITs in Summer of 2022. Interested in this program for your teen or a friend or family member? Bookmark our webpage or check out facebook for updates and sign up dates this winter.

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