Did you know prairie grasses and wildflower roots can be three times longer than the plant above them? These plants and their dense tangle of roots and bulbs are what make prairies ideal for stemming soil erosion and reducing surface water runoff. Prairies once covered 80% of the state of Iowa. Today, less than 0.1% of the original tallgrass prairie remains. This month, 7th grade students from Bettendorf Middle School in the Quad Cities are spending two weeks restoring and learning about this valuable ecosystem as part of a Greening STEM project supported by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and Arconic Foundation.
The project uses NEEF's Greening STEM approach to teaching that promotes outdoor, place-based investigation, and examines local natural phenomena, such as droughts or wildfires, as a foundation for STEM learning.
“One of the biggest shifts in science education is the focus on phenomenon-based teaching.” said Chris Like, STEM Coordinator for Bettendorf Community Schools. “You're getting to all the science, but you're doing it through a phenomenon the students are interested in.”
Water quality and agricultural runoff are pressing environmental issues throughout Iowa, and the students will get hands-on experience on the grounds of Eastern Iowa Community College, where they will be examining several acres of land to give suggestions as to how it needs to be changed to bring it back to a natural prairie.
“One of the things I've always thought was very important is to have that episodic learning,” said Like. “These are the types of experiences kids remember."
Two Districts are Better Than One
Along with Bettendorf Middle School, neighboring Pleasant Valley Junior High will also take part in the Greening STEM project. Teachers from both schools will work collaboratively on the land, each taking data at different times of the year to get a better picture of what needs to be done to bring the site back to prairie.
“We're enemies on the football field, but there is no reason we can't work together as science educators,” said Like. “Robert (NEEF) pushed us to work with another district That doubled the number of students we can reach.”
Helping Teachers and Students
Educators face many challenges in organizing hands-on learning activities and excursions for students - expenses, logistics, time restraints, and balancing learning and fun, to name a few.
According to Like, the support from NEEF and Arconic Foundation are integral to the project.
"(NEEF and Arconic Foundation are) not just supplying the funding but pushing us in the right direction and giving us ideas to make it work," he said.
For Arconic, supporting the next generation of environmental leaders in its local community is part of its longstanding environmental commitment.
“Working to protect our local environment is part of what we do every day at Arconic Davenport Works,” said Manufacturing Director Steven Jennings. “We're proud to support these students and NEEF in advancing sustainability efforts through hands-on STEM projects that can solve real challenges in our own community.”
Both Greening STEM projects wrapped up in 2022, achieving their stated goals: “We want the kids to learn and to come to an understanding of what it means to take care of the environment," said Like.
The project was covered in the Quad City Times article: "Hear how Bettendorf eighth-graders learn the science behind golf course management."