Observing and capturing native bees for an insect collection; searching for monarch eggs on the back of milkweed leaves; discovering a paper wasp nest in a tree; identifying tens of species of native plants in restored areas…
These don’t sound like activities that youth can do in the city, right? In fact, Chicago’s vibrant ecosystem was exactly the focus of Environmental Adventurers, a new one-week program that concluded on Friday, August 3. The program (named by students!) was an opportunity for middle and high Chicago public school students to engage with their city as an ecological space through student-driven research projects.
Working alongside bee ecologist Rebecca Tonietto from Northwestern University, students examined the role of native bees in Chicago. Did you know, for example, that Chicago has 500 species of native bees? As one student remarked, “I had no idea that bees were so important and that so much of what I eat is from bee pollination.” Another student said, “I have gained a lot of new respect for bees!”
To study bees, students developed their own interest-driven research projects that examined bee preference for flower shape, color, smell, and sunny vs. shady areas. Using iPod touches to collect data, students visited two restored prairies in Jackson and Burnham Parks. In fact, the fieldwork that students conducted is an example of the type of real science that Project Exploration is all about. Surveys of bee populations have not been conducted in Chicago’s South Side parks since before 1920. These Environmental Adventurers are trailblazers on a scientific frontier!
In addition to their group research projects, students also collectively worked as a team to investigate bee populations in prairie vs. ornamental areas. Utilizing the tools of graduate-level science, students collected bees and other insects through pan traps called “bee bowls.” The insect collections that students developed were beautiful reflections of the dynamic animal life in Chicago!
Throughout the week, the Environmental Adventurers met and worked with a variety of wonderful people engaged in Chicago’s natural environment. Jason Steger, Natural Areas Stewardship Coordinator for the Chicago Park District, shared his own personal career and academic path with the youth, encouraging them to look to the parks as places where they can do real science in an urban environment. Liza Fischel of the North Park Village Nature Center took students to explore the outskirts of Jackson Park to find milkweed and monarchs! Dr. Emily Minor, a professor of biology at UIC, spoke to the students about the role of urbanization on native bee populations. One of her graduate students, David Lowenstein, even brought his own insect collection and led the students through an activity predicting bee abundance in Chicago through the use of Google map images. Students dissected flowers with Kelly Ksiazek, a graduate student at Northwestern University, and learned to identify various species of bees and flowers with Hannah King, a visiting undergraduate student from Stanford University.
A special thank you to our resident bee ecologist, Rebecca Tonietto, who provided an opportunity for youth to engage in real and authentic science! We’re also really excited that Stephanie Madziar, a Chicago public school teacher from Perspectives Middle Academy, was able to join us during the entire program. Read her blog post here about how the program fueled her own curiosity about insects and how she will be bringing that excitement to her classroom in the spring!
Environmental Adventurers was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Hive Chicago Learning Network project through the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a funders collaborative housed at the Chicago Community Trust.