Thanks to a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, students on Chicago's far south side will be able to explore the natural beauty that is so prevalent in their communities.
The $100,000 grant will go to support Calumet Is My Own Back Yard (CIMBY) – a service learning initiative that connects the Lake Calumet region's human and natural communities through science education and stewardship. Active for 13 years, this program draws students from a dozen south side high schools, supplementing their science education with hands-on experiences along the Lake Michigan watershed.
"Our goal is to inspire the next generation of environmental leaders," said Samantha Mattone, Grant Project Coordinator for Service Learning. "Through our fall, winter and spring work events, students are able to conduct scientific research and perform ecological restorations that benefit their adopted sites."
These sites include forest preserves, Chicago Park District land, and even the Indiana Dunes. Students visit one site consistently, and through ecological restoration projects heal damaged ecosystems, sow native seeds, and monitor the health of the land, all while establishing personal connections with nature.
"There is often a disconnect between urban students and the environment," said Mattone. "This work closes that gap and helps them see the impact that humans and industry have on the land."
In surveys conducted by CIMBY, students who have participated in this service learning project report a much greater interest in science than they had previously. CIMBY capitalizes on this enthusiasm by holding several events per year where students are able to learn about environmental careers and participate in a mock debate about what should be done with a piece of vacant land.
"The students take on community roles, arguing from the perspectives of neighbors, park district officials, commercial developers, and so on," said Mattone. "They really get into it, and it's exciting to see them so passionate."
CIMBY also provides science teachers with professional development opportunities so that they can help students build connections between what they learn in class and their service learning projects.
"The science content is important, and we are committed to emphasizing STEM and the next generation science standards," said Mattone. "But we want students to see that they can do more than just read about it. So we teach them about collecting samples, analyzing data, and recognizing the biodiversity of an ecosystem - all the things real scientists do in the field."
Mattone hopes that the grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will allow CIMBY to expand to all high schools on Chicago's far south side.
"We're thrilled to have received this grant, because it will allow more students to see how special the Lake Calumet region is,"" she said. "There are so many natural sites for students to explore, and the hands-on experience is unmatched. This work enriches their science education, deepens their understanding of their natural environment and brings them the emotional peace that comes from just being in nature."