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Have you heard the news about Belle Isle? According to some Detroit high school science students, zombies have threatened to take it over, and only through their intensive lab experiments will it survive! At least that’s the storyline in their specially-created comic book fantasy, “Battle for Belle Isle,” 40 pages of educational curiosity and high jinx, courtesy of the Third 90 Network—a Michigan Colleges Foundation (MCF) program that pairs member colleges like Marygrove with urban high school students for hands-on learning in environmental science.

Their latest venture: partnering with the Belle Isle Conservancy to conduct environmental research in and around the Blue Heron Lagoon. Students are half-way through a year-long program that focuses primarily on water quality testing. Could their results hold the key to the island’s future? Maybe. But their findings are certain to teach them a bundle about the island’s ecosystem, and a whole lot more about themselves— and the way they like to learn.

The Institute for Arts Infused Education at Marygrove is helping to put a creative spin on this already innovative learning model, by teaching students to report their findings in a frame-by-frame comic book format, using colorful illustrations and thought bubbles to animate their lab reports. The results were compiled in a published keepsake comic book. And everyone involved had something to contribute.

Students identify tiny creatures and read tree rings for the good of humanity!

The Third 90 Network “Battle for Belle Isle” comic book’s focus on creatures—the undead kind—is a great metaphor for the creepy crawly things students were sifting out of the lagoon and slapping onto their petri dishes. Macroinvertebrates were the catch of the day—and they revealed some pretty interesting things about the water.

Fact: Macroinvertebrates make up an important part of wetland food webs and ecosystem function, and the Great Lakes—Belle Isle in particular— is home to many birds and fish that depend on them for their habitats. They get a bad rap for being spineless and somewhat unattractive. But their contributions to the island, especially, are nothing short of beautiful. See for yourself.

The presence of pollution-tolerant blood midges could spell disaster for the lagoon’s water quality if it weren’t for the abundance of Mayfly nymphs— known by their street name, Fishflies. Fishflies are very sensitive to pollution, and despite their fishy smell, they are excellent bioindicators of clean water sources. After conducting various tests, including turbidity, biological oxygen demand and pH, students found the water quality to be in the medium range; just fine for sustaining the extraordinary animal and plant life on the floating urban oasis we all know and love.

Another important test required the use of a tree borer tool. Part cork screw, part apple corer— the trick is to screw it into the tree deep enough to make a full revolution and then pull it out with enough force so as to get a whole, intact piece for study. What you end up with is a tiny replica of the trunk itself, complete with rings that show evidence of drought, flood or fire with virtually every birthday the tree has ever had. Cool.


Geeky science turns cheeky science at the Blue Heron Lagoon!

“I am no artist,” says Nakeyah, a sophomore from Cornerstone Leadership and Business High School in Detroit. “But reporting our results this way is pretty fun.”  She set her sights on going to medical school, and has always liked science class. 

“I hope stick figures are ok, because that’s really all I can do,” said Nakeyah’s classmate and lab partner, Nina. “They want us to think outside of the box,” Nina adds with a chuckle. She is passionate about science and is planning to study engineering, or some related field where research plays a prominent role. Her drawing skills are much better than she lets on.

On the flip side, science never appealed to Marygrove senior Danielle Regier until she signed up to be an Academic Project Assistant. It happened quickly. She began to see the beauty in nature’s “hidden” world—the tiny, colorful organisms that live, sometimes only for a day—just long enough to ensure that life keeps moving up the food chain. An art major looking forward to a career in graphic design, Regier witnessed the powerful combination of art and science, and how students can be influenced and enriched by both.

“There is so much more to environmental science than I realized,” Regier said “It opened my eyes to how closely connected science and the arts really are.”

Regier’s mentor partner, Marygrove sophomore Ginette Balbin-Cuesta helped students tap into their creative sides, and tell their story through the visual language of art. Balbin-Cuesta is a double major in art and biology. “The biggest thing we wanted to get across to the kids was that we are all visual creatures, and there are many different ways to communicate a message.”

Communications guru Daniel Pink would certainly agree. The former Washington speechwriter-turned-author has sold a handful of best-sellers in the last decade about the needed shift from an information-based corporate culture to a more conceptual one. He believes employers are going to increasingly look for creative college graduates who can think with both sides of their brain.

In his book “A Whole New Mind,” which is still going strong with new editions in several languages, Pink contends “… the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the “right-brain” qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders.” 

Knowing his audience well, Pink published a career guide for Generation Y, or so-called “Millennials” as a manga (that’s Japanese for comic book). “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko” details the importance of knowing one’s strengths; advises that there is no set plan to follow, and everyone must carve out their own path. He cautions our youth to remember that on the job, it’s “not all about you”—serving others is what ultimately will serve you best.  And for goodness’ sake, do something that matters.

Those ideals are shared by the Third 90 Network, a program that began as a partnership in 2010 with Detroit’s University Prep Academy, and has expanded to include roughly 50 students and student mentors from the city’s Cornerstone Leadership and Business High School, Henry Ford Academy for Creative Studies, and University Prep Science and Math School. MCF runs sister programs on the west side of the state. The projects engage high school students in a challenging academic setting, working side-by-side with college faculty and student mentors who donate their time to this service.   

The Third 90 extends the urban academic classroom to the great outdoors with hands-on field and lab work in environmental science. It teaches so many good things in addition to science though, such as the importance of stewardship and giving back to the community, especially the ecological one. It also helps high school students determine the best fit for them when selecting a college. After all, that is the mission of the MCF, a collective of 14 independent, Michigan-based institutions grounded in the liberal arts.

Faculty saves the day by providing tools for differentiated learning!

Mary Lou Greene, Co-chair of the Marygrove Department of Visual and Performing Arts and Director of the Institute for Arts Infused Education, hand-selected the talent of Matt Wilson for the arts portion of this project. Wilson is a digital colorist and writer of three independent comic book titles of his own: Dark Fury, Soul Vamp and Colossal Gods. A Marygrove College alum and certified teacher by training, he worked with Regier and Balbin-Cuesta to prepare and publish the comic book for Third 90. In his spare time, Wilson creates lesson plans for secondary school teachers to give their curriculums a boost.

“The comic book is just another tool teachers can use to change the state of the material students are absorbing,” Wilson says. “At the Institute, we see art as a transformative way to engage every type of learner.” Case in point, the tired book report in English class can leap to life in a comic book format. So why not apply the same principle to the very linear nature of a lab report? Eureka!

It’s clever. The U.S. model of comic booking is collaborative; writers, illustrators and colorists work together to achieve the end result. It’s an appropriate medium for the Third 90 project, since lab partners work in groups of two or more. “It’s a nice break from the routine way of reporting information,” Wilson says, “It coaxes students out of their comfort zones.” (Maybe even helps certain visual learners realize theirs). The sequential nature of comic booking draws on a number of skill sets and shakes up the linear pattern of thinking, forcing students to be active learners.

To engage students, Wilson and his team capitalized on the resurgence of comic themes of late, evidenced by the popularity of such blockbusters as Iron Man and Batman. And the idea to use zombies for the subversive parallel plot? Well again, that’s just popular horror fiction, sure to resonate with young people. “We live in a sound bite world,” Wilson adds. True enough, it’s snippets over substance these days. Millennials are quite literally wired to interpret information this way— although anyone over 45 is still scratching their heads about this. Spoiler alert: It’s here to stay.

The first phase of the multi-week project culminated in a presentation at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in December, where students presented their work. Forty new high school students will join the group of 20 remaining in March when further explorations are planned on the island. What’s next for these creative, sleuthing scientists? Matt Wilson won’t say—in keeping with a typical plot device in comics, he will only leave a cliffhanger that “photography will be involved.” BLAST! To be continued (dot, dot, dot!)