Thursday, July 21, 2016

Minnesota school takes action to help pollinators

Service biologist helping an elementary student plant. Photo by USFWS.
In early June, students from Orchard Lake Elementary School in Lakeville, Minnesota learned about the decline of pollinators and decided to do something about it. Collectively, the School’s Impact Academy, which includes more than 150 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, got their hands dirty making a difference for pollinators and learned a lot about these invaluable native pollinating insects in the process!
Private Lands Biologist educating students about pollinators. Photo by USFWS.
Private Lands Biologist educating students about pollinators. Photo by USFWS.
Orchard Lake’s Impact Academy includes a service-learning component, which is a learning strategy that involves community service and connects learning to real world problems. For their spring service learning project, the students decided they wanted to help wildlife on the school property. Their first step was figuring out what group of animals or plants most needed their help right now, and how they could help this group of species on the school’s property.
The Impact Academy students decided to reach out to the Service for help and without hesitation Service biologists contributed their scientific expertise to help the students determine which species could benefit from their help. Jill Utrup, with the Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office, talked with the students about pollinating insects and how this group of insects that significantly benefits us in our daily lives is really in need of everyone’s help right now. In particular, species such as the rusty-patched bumble bee and monarch butterfly are facing serious population declines. The students were very concerned about the plight of these pollinators and decided that they wanted to plant a garden on the school grounds to help these beneficial insects. After receiving permission from the school’s principal to go forward with planting, they needed to find funding for their project.
The students learned about funding through the Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program and asked John Riens with the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program to help. Riens came to the school to talk with the students about what native grass and wildflower species they should consider planting in their pollinator garden. He mentioned considerations such as bloom time, color and pollinators that would be attracted, as well as emphasizing the benefits of using native plants in designing their garden. The students then voted on what species of wildflowers and grasses should be included in the design of the garden.
The abundance of kids and teachers separated into three active teams that cooperatively contributed to planning and outreach for the pollinator garden. The first group was responsible for visiting each classroom to teach students about pollinators and inform them of the changes they would see in front of the school. The second group was in charge of community outreach. Students created flyers and alerted the local press as to what they were doing to help pollinators and how others can help too. Lastly, the third group was in charge of coming up with the design for the garden.
On the day of planting, more than 150 students worked in 30 minute shifts receiving a lesson in planting given by Service staff including representation from the Twin Cities Ecological Services Field Office, Minnesota Private Lands Office and Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The students, assisted by Service staff, literally “dug in,” digging holes and planting native plants. Prior to planting the native plant “plugs,” all 150+ students gathered to assist with spreading seed and stomping it into the ground! With much excitement over the chance to be outdoors and working on something of their own; students took great pride in their work and their responsibility in implementing the project. At the end of the day, when Service staff was packing up, they observed one of the first monarch butterfly of the year flying over the newly established garden.
“These students truly owned every aspect of this pollinator garden,” says Utrup. “It was very impressive to see the students work together during all phases of this project to accomplish their goal of getting this garden planted and ultimately helping pollinators. The older students that are getting ready to move on to middle school will be able to visit and see how the plants that they planted have changed over the years, and the younger students will get to watch the plants grow along with them during their time at Orchard Lake.”
The teachers have reported that this project has helped their students hone their research skills, critical thinking ability, promoted a sense of comradery, and created confidence in starting and finishing a project that will benefit the community. Teachers and the school principal view this as the “first phase” in the project and plan to use this schoolyard habitat as part of an outdoor classroom. Additionally, the teachers and students hope to incorporate Citizen Science efforts such as Xerces Society’s Bumble Bee Watch or the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab’s Monarch Larva Monitoring Project into this project in the near future.
It is hoped that this schoolyard habitat project is the first step in creating a chain reaction in development of these types of projects across the State and beyond. Although this project was not large in size, the educational benefits are huge! Also, every little bit of native habitat helps when it comes to comes to helping pollinating insects. The Service was honored to have helped Orchard Lake Elementary School students in creating a schoolyard habitat project and is committed to supporting Service Director Dan Ashe’s commitment to creating 750 schoolyard habitats across the country. Schoolyard habitat projects can help connect kids with nature using a hands on approach to learning along with potentially inspiring the next generation of conservation–minded citizens.