When it comes to the environment, today’s students know it’s up to all of us to make a difference.
“The fact that we as the human race have the ability to save our planet and most people won’t care, because it won’t happen in their lifetime is baffling,” said Alexis Reynolds, 17, a Michigan City High School student who is involved in the school’s environmental conservation team, known as the Michigan City High School Wolves Environmental Restoration Team. “I feel that we are setting up the next generation for failure, and it’s devastating to know that they will have a whole population to save.
“Students are the future; so, of course, we can prevent or help to fix the damage that has already impacted the world so heavily,” she said adding that simply starting picking up garbage and recycling would start to address the situation. Students across Northwest Indiana are involved in extensive efforts to improve their environment, from planting and watering trees to educating others about effective water conservation practices.
Drew Hart, Chicago Region Natural Resources liaison for the U.S. Forest Service, engages students from elementary to high school in learning to take care of the natural environment. With the CommuniTree program, he works with students to improve the air quality in their neighborhoods. “We look at particular neighborhoods and how we can plant buffer zones of trees to measure environmental impacts,” said Hart. The CommuniTree project focuses mainly on neighborhoods and cities with the lowest air quality.
East Chicago’s Lincoln Elementary School has been a great partner for the CommuniTree program, according to Hart.
“Lincoln elementary students planted more than 200 trees along Commonwealth Road as a buffer between the neighborhood and industries in the area,” Hart said. “We plant native fruit and nut trees such as persimmon and paw paw and other fruit trees.” Before the planting begins, Student Conservation Association crew members go into classrooms to discuss proper care and watering of trees. Younger students, from kindergarten to grade 3, help with watering, while the older students, from grades 4-6, help with the planting.
“They took complete ownership of the trees,” said Maria McWhorter, a languages teacher at Lincoln Elementary. “My students planted 10 trees. They wanted to know how long they take to grow, and what they could do to protect the trees and what diseases to look for.” Education is a vital component of the conservation program, Hart says.
“Surprisingly it doesn’t matter if you’re working with first and second grade or high school students, there is a lack of awareness of the importance of trees and benefits of trees. People often don’t have that kind of basic knowledge.” The students are eager to learn.
“They knew very little about trees going in,” McWhorter said. “Most of them didn’t know what mulch was or the names of the tools.
“They asked so many questions. They wanted to know what percentage of oxygen we get from trees; what happens in our environment if we chop down all the trees,” she said. “They were very interested in the effect trees have on pollution, since they live next to the steel mills.”
“A tree-lined street makes such a difference in an industrial area,” Hart added.
Planting trees is just one aspect of student conservation efforts.
“We remove invasive species that damage the plants, and we clean the park up and remove trash,” said Michaela Reynolds, 16, a member of the Michigan City High School conservation group. “We also clean the water to make it safe for the animals to swim and make sure they don’t swallow any garbage.”
Water conservation is a definite priority in Northwest Indiana.
“I think, here in the Great Lakes, we will have to worry about water quality. With a warming climate, I expect we will see more harmful algae blooms and changes in the Great Lakes fisheries,” said Nicole Messacar, LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District education coordinator. “This happened recently in Lake Erie. In areas where sewers haven’t been separated, more frequent, intense rains will probably cause more sewage overflows as well. All of these changes would likely impact local economies.”
But the level of water conservation awareness varies widely, Messacar says.
“Some schools spend a lot of time learning about their local watersheds, some not at all,” Messacar said.
The LaPorte County district also partners with Wilderness Inquiry, which brings its Canoe Mobile to Northwest Indiana each year. More than 1,100 students participated in the Kankakee River Days program in 2018, according to Messacar.
During this five day environmental education program, students explore the Kankakee River, its watershed, history and ecology. Students attend sessions led by local experts on history, water quality, water safety and wild life and then board a canoe for a paddle on the river. Programs at each station are based on 4th grade State Educational Standards in Science and Social Studies.