Schoolchildren once again got the chance to explore and learn from the environmentally remarkable Grand Calumet River at the remediated Roxana Marsh in northwest Indiana.
Seventy students from fourth and sixth grades atHarrison,McKinleyandCarrie Gosch elementaryschools worked one-on-one with scientists and experts doing activities like fish identification, macroinvertebrate sampling, bird watching, and tree planting. The mayor of East ChicagoAnthony Copeland even stopped by and helped the students plant a swamp white oak, a tree native to the area.
For a long time, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in America. Through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding, almost 2 million cubic yards of river and wetland sediment have been removed or capped and 84 acres of habitat have been restored, including Roxana Marsh.
“It builds pride-in-place,” said Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist who’s been organizing the event every year. “It also helps encourage kids to take part in future stewardship efforts.”
Carrie Gosch Elementary sixth-grader Gerald Lewis was impressed by all the birds and insects and fish he saw.
“I didn’t know we were going to see this much, like eggs on the ground and stuff,” Lewis said. “And we saw some of the fish that was polluted by the oil.”
But his new-found interest in the environment didn’t end there. It made him want to do something about it.
“I felt sad at first when they showed us the fish that was getting hurt and killed,” Lewis said. “That made me want to think, like when I get older, I can help them.”
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.
It was a chilly May 12th, cloudy and windy as well. But 29 sixth graders from West Side Middle School in East Chicago, Indiana came to nearby Roxana Marsh to experience what the outdoors has to offer, learn new things, help with the cleanup and restoration of the natural area, and enjoy the afternoon. Roxana Marsh is part of the larger Grand Calumet River Area of Concern, which has been undergoing dredging through the Great Lakes Legacy Act over the past six years. The marsh section of the project was completed three years ago with the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of sediment. This accomplishment was celebrated with a press event attended by government officials and local school children. Those middle schoolers left their legacy in perennial plants that are now thriving along the marsh. This year’s class is the third group of gardeners in what may well become an annual tradition.
In addition to planting natives, the students learned the basics of birding, explored the small community of life in sediment, and manned trash bags for garbage detail. There were water beetles, egrets, killdeer, toads, dragonfly nymphs, and more to experience.
Throughout their afternoon tour, the 6th graders were guided by experts from Audubon Chicago Region, U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Indiana’s departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Dunes Learning Center, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
The first surprise for the students was just how close the natural area is to their school and their world. “They had no idea that this was here or about the dredging and restoration, said teacher Linda Padilla. “They were sure we would be going someplace farther away.”
Last June, she took part in a one-day workshop at Purdue University Calumet, which introduced the Helping Hands curriculum to 25 local educators. Helping Hands activities are ideally suited to schools in Areas of Concern that are going through the cleanup process—they provide opportunities to directly engage students in the larger project. The workshop also included a visit to several sites on the Grand Cal to see the dredging work in progress as well to walk around a finished site—Roxana Marsh.
Caitie McCoy, IISG environmental social scientist, has been helping keep residents informed during the dredging. She saw the Grand Cal project as an opportunity to connect students with their environment. “The cleanup and restoration of the Grand Calumet River is brightening the northwest Indiana landscape,” she explained. “This work transforms space into places that students can visit, perform stewardship work, and develop pride in their local environment. Environmental educators teach students that nature is in their backyard, but for these students, high quality nature is in their backyard, right here in East Chicago, Indiana.”
At one point, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in the country. Through the remediation process, more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from this waterway, which runs through a highly-populated region. If funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues and non-federal cost share partners are secured, the river work could finish as early as 2019.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act remediation project on the Buffalo River resumed June 16, and will remove 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river, then replace native aquatic plants to help restore the local ecosystem.
18 teachers from grades 4-11 attended the workshop to learn more about the restoration project and the curriculum, and were treated to hands-on activities and a tour of the river area to help bring the project and its impacts into their classes.
“It’s great to see so many educators come out to this kind of workshop,” Caitie said. “Many teachers want to incorporate place-based learning in their science curriculum, but may lack resources to do so. Now instead of using distant examples like rainforests to teach science, they can use their neighborhood rivers and lakes. These are places that students can visit and experience the science in person. They develop a love for these places and want to protect them.”
Two years ago, a group of middle school students planted native seedlings along the banks of Roxana Marsh to celebrate the successful cleanup of the waterway. On Monday, those same students returned for another day of learning and service to find the marsh in bloom – thanks in large part to their efforts.
“It’s good to know that we did something phenomenal to help our environment,” said Sandra Olivarria, one of the East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School students participating in the event.
Monday morning’s stewardship began with speeches from state and local officials, including Indiana Representative Earl Harris, Senator Lonnie Randolph, and Mayor Anthony Copeland of East Chicago.
“We need to start to get everyone involved in this kind of project at an early age so that when you grow up, you become part of something that keeps you involved for the long term,” Representative Harris said.
The rest of the day was devoted to hands-on activities that encouraged students to get familiar with the plants and animals inhabiting the area. The class looked at native and non-native plant species growing around the marsh, then checked on the flowers they had originally sprouted in their classroom. The kids worked together to pull up the invasive clover that had grown around their plantings – a little tricky at times, they said, but “pretty fun, too.”
“It feels so good to come back and see what we did two years ago, and see it all grown and restored!” one student exclaimed.
Down by the water, volunteer scientists helped students take samples of mud from the marsh to collect bottom-feeding aquatic animals that lived there. The students identified various species of worms, snails, larvae, and tadpoles, and were delighted at the chance to handle these small creatures.
The class also cleaned up trash from the marsh and along Roxana Drive, helping to beautify the area.
“I’m really proud of all the work the students performed today,” said IISG environmental social scientist Caitie McCoy. “It was thrilling to have them come back and take care of a beautiful environment that they helped create. Today, nature was our classroom, and I think the students learned a lot.”
Roxana Marsh is now home to blue herons, wild irises, and all sorts of aquatic life. But it wasn’t always that way. Located on the Grand Calumet River, the marsh was heavily polluted for more than a century with byproducts of heavy industry around East Chicago. Federal and state agencies worked to dredge the river, removing contaminated sediment and restoring the surrounding habitat as part of the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Legacy Act.
Monday’s restoration activities and press event brought together partners from the US EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, US Fish and Wildlife, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, The Nature Conservancy, and Shirley Heinz Land Trust. The Roxana Marsh cleanup and Caitie’s work to improve community engagement here and at other Areas of Concern is possible because of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
Teachers interested in integrating AOC issues into their classroom can find activities and other resources in our Helping Hands curriculum.