Learning the land

Published 10:15 am Friday, May 22, 2009

Students at Grand Meadow Public Schools are getting their hands dirty in a continual project that educates, promotes conservation and even reduces lawn-mowing.

More than four years ago, social studies teacher Bill Simpkins was instrumental in developing a plan to turn a section of alfalfa field and school lawn into a natural prairie. Now, more than an acre of land and a water-retention pond are lessons for science and agriculture classes.

“It used to be part of the school lawn, so why not make it into a prairie and save some fuel?” said senior Paul Carman, who plans to pursue agronomy after graduation.

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High school science teacher Mike Keefe and Simpkins bring classes to the prairie, located east of the school building, on a regular basis during the warmer months. Most students have either never planted anything before or have only planted soybeans and corn on the farm.

Keefe said the prairie is a “a fun way to get kids involved physically.”

“You put the seeds out and hope something grows,” he said. “It’s not instant gratification.”

On Thursday, juniors and seniors in Keefe’s advanced biology class planted seeds using a grid method. Students have been planting seeds for the past three weeks.

“Some people rake, some people seed … we stake out a 10-by-10-foot area,” junior Alison Glyn said.

About 30 varieties of seeds are being planted. The prairie is in various stages of growth, with some seeds not sprouting for as long as three years. Non-native plants like dandelions are growing, but Keefe said the natives — bergamot (”bee balm”), native black-eyed susans, liatris (“gayfeather”) rattlesnake masters, seven-foot cup plants, several varieties of milkweeds and many others — will eventually push out the non-native species.

However, the prairie is still burned every other year to rid the area of non-natives. “All prairie plants are fire-resistant,” Keefe said. The local Prairie Smoke fire burning association aids in the burnings.

Students are taught that a natural prairie is quite durable — it can withstand fire as well as trampling of feet. A disc golf basket, part of the school’s disc golf course, is located in the middle of the newer section of the prairie.

The multi-faceted “outdoor classroom” is also home to some birds and animals, and hopefully many more in the future, Keefe said.

A physics class recently built 14 wooden birdhouses for bluebirds and swallows; about eight or nine are now occupied by swallows. Twenty bobolinks were seen in the prairie last week.

Agriculture and science students identify plants and take water samples from the 48-inch-deep pond.

The prairie benefits in other ways besides education: The school district does not have to mow that section of land and saves money with students doing the planting. It costs the district a couple hundred dollars per acre; the project would cost $1,000 to $2,000 per acre to be professionally planted.

The environment also reaps the fruits because no fertilizer is used and native birds and animals are attracted to the area.

Funding for the prairie is provided mostly by the Grand Meadow Education Foundation as well as the district itself.