This piece was written by Alyssa Nyberg, Native Plant Nursery Manager at the Kankakee Sands Efroymson Family Restoration. Alyssa has been managing the nursery for 13 years and has always made community outreach one of her priorities.
There seemed to be a sense of apathy in each one of the 128 biology students that arrived at the Kankakee Sands Nursery last fall for the first of the Place Based Learning Labs. The students in the six classes were fidgety and distracted as I explained that they were about to embark in a fierce competition against their classmates to see who could grow the most prairie seedlings. The winners thumbnails would be painted green as the true mark of having a green thumb.
When I suggested to the students that it was time to pair up with their lab partner and decide whether they wanted to pick the seeds of Ratibida pinnata or Eryngium yuccifolium, suddenly there was a look of shock and fear in their eyes. I even heard a gasp and saw two girls embrace. It was then and there that I realized just how out of their element these students were.
The Place Based Learning Program is a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Efroymson Family Restoration and North Newton High School to educate the students using their surrounding landscape. North Newton High School is located across the street from the Kankakee Sands Native Plant Nursery, a small component of the 7,800-acre prairie restoration that The Nature Conservancy has owned and managed since 1997. A place-based learning curriculum seemed like a perfect fit for this high school on the edge of the prairie.
The hands-on labs at Kankakee Sands are designed to introduce the students to the prairie system through five visits over the course of the academic year. The students pick the seeds of Yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) or Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), clean the seeds, cold moist stratify them and then sow the seeds in germination trays.
Along with getting their hands dirty, the students learn about the prairie that was present in Newton County when the settlers first arrived. We talk about the native flora and fauna of Newton County, as well as the non-native and invasive species that have bullied their way into the area. They learn about pollination and seed set, the importance of genetic diversity and adaptation, and restoration management. And we discuss the role of humans such as themselves in the conservation of our natural resources.
In April 2011, the freshman returned for the final lab and were surprised to see that their seeds had germinated. In all, over 10,000 plants germinated, far beyond initial expectations of the students. They were excited, relieved, and admittedly quite proud.
At that last visit, we reviewed what they had learned about the Kankakee Sands Restoration. The students remembered that Kankakee Sands was free and open to the public every day of the year. They mentioned what they could do while at Kankakee Sands: Walk? Take pictures? Pee on the plants? (High schoolers, remember?) They also remembered what they couldn’t do there: dig up plants, pick seeds, ride ATVs, or litter.
We also talked about how they are at the beginning of their high school and college experiences, which can sometimes be a rough and rocky road. I talked about how we at The Nature Conservancy are creating this Kankakee Sands Restoration for the plants, and the animals, but also for them. Nature needs people, and people need nature.
A study conducted by Psychologist Frances Kuo, with the University of Illinois, found that a sense of well-being can be scientifically documented among people who spend time in natural areas, parks, gardens, have views of open space, or even gaze at painting of natural scenes. Nature is good for the psyche and the soul.
It was the first time in eight months that the students, collectively, looked up at me, quietly, and held my gaze. Heads cocked to the side, shoulders relaxed, and tiny sideways smiles peaked out.
As the classes left that day, there were many thank you’s and genuine smiles. Three students even asked if they might apply to work at the nursery this summer! For some, their final salute was just a simple nod and a green thumbs-up.
As for the Yellow coneflowers and the Rattlesnake masters, some of the seedlings went home with the students. Some seedlings were shared with Generation Conservation (the Conservancy’s group for members under age 50, see page 13 for more information) to help parents teach their children about gardening. Some were planted at North Newton High School or incorporated into the landscaping at the new Kankakee Sands office. Some of us from the Kankakee Sands office took the seedlings to various Earth Day activities in the county for children to transplant. A local volunteer group called Friends of the Sands will use extra seedlings for beautification projects in the area.
And so, because of one Place Based Learning Program, there’s a whole lot more green in Newton County and a whole lot more green in the hearts of the participants.