Monday, July 28, 2014

Working and Learning Laboratory this Summer at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

By Ann Baskerville

Federal Legislation transferring land that was the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant from the Department of the Army to the National Forest Service in 1995 outlined scientific, environmental and land use education and research as founding purposes for Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.  Midewin is fulfilling its mission this summer, partnering with colleges, high schools, and conservation groups to bring together young people from diverse backgrounds for a common purpose: restoring the native prairie at Midewin.

North Lawndale College Prep and YCC students remove invasive species at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

High School Programs
Midewin hosts two summer work programs for high school students, the Youth Conservation Corps and the National Forest Foundation North Lawndale College Prep High School Program.

The Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) is made up of six high students from communities near Midewin, including Wilmington, Kankakee, Braidwood, Coal City, Essex, and Minooka.   YCC is a federal program that provides summer employment for youths ages 15-18.  YCC is an eight-week program and the students are paid minimum wage.

During their first week of work, YCC students learned what lay beyond the imposing Arsenal fence. One YCC student said that although she had driven past Midewin on Route 53, she didn't know what the land behind the huge fence was or why it was fenced off.  Another YCC student from Wilmington had gained a basic understanding of Midewin from school field trips and hearing about the "Old Joliet Arsenal."

Students learned the Arsenal was now the Nation's first tallgrass prairie, and that they would be working to restore native prairie plants.   Although students said they did not know what an invasive plant was prior to working at Midewin, they saw first-hand how invasives quickly reproduce and crowd out native plants.  Students pulled invasives such as sweet white clover, amur honeysuckle, and autumn olive. Students also collected seeds from Midewin's native seed beds, planted native plants in restoration areas, and cut shrubs. A student from Kankakee said she is learning "team-building, communication skills, and how to work with others."  Another student said this job "was more than I expected, in a good way, Midewin staff don't just teach us what to do, they teach us why we are doing what we do to eventually restore the prairie."
Putting invasive species in vehicle for disposal at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

The North Lawndale College Prep High School Program consists of 16 students from the public charter school in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood.  The North Lawndale Program is funded through the National Forest Foundation, which secured financing to pay the North Lawndale students from Exelon.  Students are paid by the National Forest Foundation at the rate of $10.50 an hour and the program runs for six weeks. The National Forest Foundation's partnership with North Lawndale College Prep led to the first crew working at Midewin in 2012.

Two North Lawndale College Prep science teachers drive the students to Midewin each day, and, along with Midewin staff, teach and lead the work crews.  Teacher Kiel Smith said that upon first viewing Midewin, one student said, "it looks like we are driving into Jurassic Park." Jurassic Park is a pretty apt comparison, since, Smith said, there are spots in Midewin where students can turn around 360 degrees and see nothing built by humans.  Viewing a landscape that contrasts so sharply with the urban streetscape they routinely see is especially meaningful, Smith said, considering that some of the students, although living a few miles from the lakeshore, have never seen Lake Michigan. 

The program also provides students with an opportunity to gain marketable work skills and interact with scientists and students from more rural backgrounds.  Smith said the youth unemployment rate for kids in the North Lawndale area is near 100%, and those that do find work typically work in restaurants.  The program allows both YCC and North Lawndale students to gain skills such as identifying plants, working with Midewin scientists, seeing a task through to completion, and helping to carry out a restoration plan, skills that will likely help the students' resumes stand out.  Smith and his fellow teacher Luke McShane also use the van rides from Chicago to Midewin and back to discuss professional conduct and to reflect on each day's accomplishments and challenges.  Students board the van at 6:00 a.m. in North Lawndale to reach Midewin by 7:30 a.m..  Since North Lawndale College Prep is a charter school and students attend from throughout the city, some students wake up at 4:00 a.m. to travel from 63rd and the Dan Ryan to meet the van at their school.

Beyond gaining skills for a resume, Smith says, although apprehensive at first about the bugs and cows--asking, just to be safe, "will the cows try to eat us?"--- the students are now taking ownership of the restoration project.  Smith related that by the last few weeks of the program, the students were ending breaks on their own and continuing on with the day's plan rather than waiting for an adult to prompt them.  Smith reminds students they are building a prairie that can be enjoyed by all Midewin visitors.  Smith tells students: "you can take your kids out here 50 years from now, and no one will remember your names, but they will see the work that you did."

Tania Tribble graduated from North Lawndale College Prep and is working at Midewin during her summer break from Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.  Tribble worked at Midewin last year as well and came back because she enjoyed working on the prairie.  Tribble said her first thought when arriving at Midewin was, "wow, this is a very big prairie."  Tribble stated: "Open land where I come from is not that big, maybe a block or two, this is a much larger area of open space and I feel like when I work here I am doing something for the environment."  Tribble said working at Midewin "teaches you leadership, how to take charge of a project, encouraging other people and saying 'let's go, let's get this,' and listening to everyone as well."

In addition to learning the science of restoration, Tibble is fascinated by Midewin's history.  Tibble thinks the remnants of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant--bunkers, ammunition warehouses--are "amazing, every time we drive back by the bunkers, I can imagine the bunkers full of ammunition and the trains" that ran through the arsenal to transport the ammunition for the war effort. Tibble and all of the students toured the bunkers and viewed graffiti on the inside of the bunkers, where workers signed their names with dates from the 1940s.

Joliet Army Ammunition Bunkers in Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie:

Antonio is currently a junior at North Lawndale College Prep and plans to pursue pre-med studies in college.  Antonio said he enjoys learning about the science of plants, and that before working at Midewin and learning to differentiate species of prairie plants, "I would have assumed it was all just grass."  Antonio said he enjoys working with the Midewin staff because "they are nice and helpful, and they care about people and not just the job."  Antonio said his favorite part of working at Midewin this summer is meeting new people, "people from different parts of Illinois and not just Chicago."

Students from YCC and North Lawndale both stated that at the start of the summer, the two groups were separated and both groups felt a little awkward around the "new kids."  After some team-building activities and working on projects, however, students said it didn't even seem like they were two different groups.  In addition, the students make connections during educational field trips every Friday.  Students said they were fossil hunting---finding part of a jelly fish---in Braidwood and also visited a reptile museum.

In addition to the high school programs, Midewin is hosting two college students through a partnership with the Student Conservation Association (SCA).  SCA supplies the students with housing in Wilmington, which was a familiar setting for Iowa State University student Erica Anderson since she is originally from a small town in Iowa.  Anderson is majoring in animal ecology and said she is "learning a lot about plants, the ecosystem, and wildlife in the Midwest."  Anderson said her best memory from her summer at Midewin is bird watching and interacting with Midewin scientists such as botanist Jennifer Durkin.  Finally, three students from Northeastern Illinois are working on restoration projects.  Two of those students are particpating through a partnership between Midewin and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.   Pedro Solis is studying Earth Science at Northeastern and learned of the summer internship at Midewin through a professor who is also a United States Deparment of Agriculture Regional Coordinator.   Solis said faculty do a good job letting students know about internship and job opportunities.

Rick Short, Midewin's Public Services Team Leader, said the Midewin staff greatly enjoys having the students at Midewin for the summer.  Short said the students bring an enthusiastic desire to work and learn and that students are making a difference with tasks day in and day out.  Short said the students help Midewin fulfill its mission of restoration and education and will hopefully spread the word about Midewin to friends and family seeking educational and recreational opportunities.  For more info on Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, go here.