MINOOKA — Minooka Community High School Integrated Environmental Science teacher Matt Minich takes his freshman class outside to learn at every opportunity.
When the weather is decent, students may be outdoors studying the life of a grasshopper or checking a small animal live trap to make sure it’s baited and set correctly. They could be learning about animal immigration, population density, food webs and closed systems.
By utilizing the prairie on school grounds at Minooka High South campus, students are getting field experience and learning first-hand how their environment works and how it relates to them, Minich said.
“Kids learn a great deal with hands on, instead of listening to a lecture,” Minich said.
Unfortunately, some of the prairie grasses in the areas that students study became more dominant and have pushed out other varieties. In order for the ecosystem to thrive, it needs the proper balance of grasses.
Minich applied for a few grants to help restore the prairies. He started last year with a small grant, but this year he received a $1,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and the Illinois Conservation Foundation (ICF) as part of their Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant program.
“The Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant provides children and educators with the opportunity to develop wildlife habitat, reduce mowing and increase the use of native plants in Illinois landscapes,” said IDNR Director Marc Miller in a January press release. “Students take part in all phases of these projects and realize that they can make a difference in the world. These gardens also provide learning experiences that support the educational curriculum.”
The prairies are used not only for science studies, said Minich; they can be applied to other curricula such as history.
Even restoration of the prairie itself will be used as an educational tool as students learn how to seed the fields in the winter, plant different types of grasses and prairie flowers in the spring and experience cultivating and maintaining a natural Illinois prairie.
“I want to get students involved in it to create an outside lab area,” Minich said.
The IDNR Schoolyard grant and other donations will help Minich to purchase different types of plants and some supplies he needs to start the restoration project.
Minich is getting some top notch help in the restoration process from fellow teacher Brad Dorick, a chemistry and physics teacher at Minooka High Central campus.
Dorick has worked at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on and off during the summer for nine years. Heis assisting with the selection of grasses and the planning.
“All we do (at Midewin) is prairie restoration,” Dorick said. “I am helping Matt out with anything I can to create a prairie.”
Minich sees the project as an ongoing process and intends to apply for additional grants, which will give students over multiple years an opportunity to participate in different stages of the restoration process.
There are four or five areas Minich would like to see restored. He is starting with a small area this year and will expand as time goes on. Some areas are as small as a quarter acre, while others are as large as two or three acres.
Between help from Dorick, the IDNR Schoolyard grant, a $100 grant from Ecolab and a $1,500 donation from a private donor, Minich and his students are well on their way to getting their outside lab restored. “There’s been a lot of great support from the public and private sector,” he said.
The real life and hands on experience not only helps students learn better, the knowledge will help them with new science standards and state tests.
“For the next generation of science students, it’s all about ‘doing’ science,” Minich said.