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Educators will tell you there is no substitute for hands-on learning. That’s why several high school students and their college student mentors from Marygrove College and Albion College are getting together each semester to study newly-restored wetlands just outside of Detroit.

This two-year collaboration, called the Third-90 Wetlands Restoration Program, allows University Prep High School, Detroit students to benefit from direct exposure to college students and faculty in a collegiate setting. University Prep Detroit prides itself on being a Third-90 high school, which means 90 percent of their students will graduate from high school, 90 percent of those will attend college, and 90 percent of those college students will earn a degree. This effort is particularly important in the City of Detroit, where high school graduation rates are among the lowest in the country.

The project is a collaboration between the Michigan Colleges Foundation, a consortium of 14 private state-wide colleges and universities, and University Prep High School, Detroit. Stipends were provided through Michigan Caterpillar President Jerry Jung, who owns the land and various corporate partners including Cabela’s and Ducks Unlimited.  Jung’s generous gift will not only educate and support youth, but will preserve an important natural resource.

As part of its commitment to urban leadership, Marygrove was honored to participate, especially since the abandoned farm land to be restored was actually owned for many years by their sponsors, the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). It was the original St. Mary’s farm in Monroe, only three miles from the IHM Motherhouse--a renovated sustainable use facility, which has functional wetlands of its own. For Marygrove faculty and students, it is hallowed ground.

“We are pleased to return to the land our sponsoring sisters once farmed,” said Steve Scribner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry and Project co-leader, Marygrove. “We think there has to be a certain synergy about all of this.” The IHM sisters have maintained a two-acre St. Mary’s organic community farm on their property since 1998. Their commitment to sustainability is part of their charter.

Dr. Scribner heads the soil component of the two-year study, and played an integral role in establishing the dimensions of the program. “We commend Jerry Jung for his vision and initiative to offer an exciting teaching laboratory for students,” Scribner says.

Last fall, student/teacher teams assembled before the excavation began. They took water and soil samples for analysis, and set up cameras to conduct a wildlife survey on the land. A mapping project was included, using geographic information system technology. In late November, excavators came in to break the drains and dismantle old irrigation systems to allow for natural flooding. “We look forward to taking more samples in the spring to see what changes have taken place,” Scribner adds.  Letting nature take its course is really what it’s all about.

Because the land was abandoned farmland for many years, students found low levels of nitrogen, a nutrient depletion that should reverse as the restoration progresses. Once the ecosystem is restored, the team hopes to attract waterfowl and other rare species unique to the Maumee Lake Plain, such as the short-eared owl, or the eastern fox snake. Several rare native plants will be cultivated again and in time, an aggressive plan to rid the area of invasive species will be employed.

In addition to the fascinating outdoor site, Scribner is very gratified to offer a state-of-the-art lab at Marygrove for students to further their investigations. Scribner’s Department of Science and Mathematics recently received a sizeable grant from the State of Michigan to purchase two significant tools—the Gas Chromatograph mass spectrophotometer, and the Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) instrument—both used for the identification of unknown compounds in chemistry research and medical technology. Instruments of this type offer students a leg up on the kind of tools they will be using as a researcher in a science field. They are essential for preparing science majors to be successful in the workplace.

For the students at University Prep, the Third-90 wetlands restoration is an excellent opportunity to experience the individualized attention that smaller colleges like Marygrove can offer. Mentorship from upperclassmen, access to faculty and cutting edge labs make the science program at Marygrove an attractive choice. “This project is a great way to conduct college level work, while participating in the environmental restoration of the Detroit area,” Scribner adds. “These students should feel very proud to be selected.”  The lessons learned go beyond community service and good stewardship—it is the renewal of an area that is thirsty for change.

February Celebrates World Wetlands Day

Wetlands are areas of marshes, swamps, peat lands or water-covered surfaces, whether stagnant or flowing; they include floodplains or adjacent coastal areas, as well as islands or seawaters within wetlands.

Wetlands are important to the environment, which has led them to be dubbed “the kidneys of the earth,” due to their role as natural filtering processes, replenishing groundwater and making it fit for human consumption.

It is estimated that around 6.4% of the earth’s land surface, an area somewhat larger than Europe, are covered by wetlands. However, it is calculated that since 1990, nearly half of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed.