MENDOTA – An abandoned, overgrown butterfly garden area at Mendota High School has received new life thanks to a Service Learning Project started by social studies teachers, Jason Artman and Aaron Sester. Artman, who has received in-depth training as an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach, and Sester, who has also had extra training in civics education, joined forces to offer service learning in their classrooms.
Funding for the project came from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources grant that Sester applied for and received. The grant is intended to benefit education while also offering students the ability to work together for the common good of the community.
To get started, Sester’s geography students first did research on the environment, both locally and globally, and then had to decide on some type of environmental improvement they could actually accomplish. Working in groups, they investigated their Ecological Footprint, which measures the impact a person has on their environment based on their lifestyle, and Earth Overshoot Day, which calculates the calendar date when our resource consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate resources for that year.
The students determined that the Ecological Footprint of their class, on average, was 4.1 Earths. That means if everyone on Earth lived the way their class does, it would take 4.1 Earths to sustain humanity. As for Earth Overshoot Day, they learned that in 2021, it was reached on Aug. 22 and that the date has been moving in the wrong direction.
Sester said the service learning project was part of an endangered species unit in his geography class and was completely student-led. Students created the list of criteria they would follow and then began collecting data. “They went all around campus and came up with things we could do to improve the environment,” he explained.
Since MHS is situated on a large campus in a rural setting, students decided to see if the property would be considered a “Certified Wildlife Habitat” using standards set by the National Wildlife Federation. To be certified as such, the campus would have to meet certain criteria on Food (native plants), Water (for animals to drink, bathe and live in), Cover (shelter from extreme weather), and Young (a sheltered place to raise offspring).
Using these standards, the students learned that the MHS campus was “average” for the Food category, “good” on Cover (wooded areas, brushes, log pile, etc.), “lacking” on Water, and “somewhat lacking” on Young. They learned that habitat loss is causing many animals to become endangered and some to become extinct and why that is important. The class then researched the plant species that could be added to improve the environment on campus by attracting butterflies, bees and birds.
“Their numbers are dwindling and they are a vital part of survival on our planet,” Sester noted.
In addition, the students learned about four federal laws that have been enacted over time to protect the environment – National Park Service Act (1916), Water Quality Act (1965), Endangered Species Act (1973) and Great Lakes Fishery Act (1956). Once all of their research was compiled, the 5th-hour geography students also created a detailed presentation on their findings.
Students next had to decide on a project they could do locally to help improve the environment. In an interview with IllinoisCivics.org, Artman explained that at first, students only considered large-scale things that seemed too difficult such as becoming vegan, giving up driving to school, and other ideas that were impractical for most students to accomplish. But through their research and exploration of their campus, the students were able to identify a project they could start on right away to make a difference, even if only on a relatively small level.
“We are not stopping global warming, reducing greenhouse gasses, or even eliminating all litter,” Artman said. “We’re exploring how we can take a small action that can contribute to a greater good.”
During their research, the students became interested in an area on campus that had been started as a butterfly garden years ago but over time was abandoned. Artman said the students wanted to find out what was there, why it was there, and how they could revitalize it to positively impact the school and community while addressing an environmental concern. The students created a survey that would help them answer their questions about the plot and find ways to make it beneficial to the environment. They gave the survey to administrators, science teachers and the agriculture teacher in order to learn more and to get some ideas of how the prairie plot could be part of a teacher’s curriculum.
With their questions answered and a plan in place, the appropriate plants were ordered for the butterfly garden and students were able to begin cleaning up the area last spring.
“The plants were the final step but it was a waiting game because there was a supply issue with getting some of the plants we ordered,” Sester explained. “With help from Ekana, we made some substitutions and ended up planting at the very end of the school year.”
Sester kept the new plants watered every day for the first several weeks of summer break but was concerned because he was not able to continue their care in July. “I was worried about them but they came through fine and I found out they didn’t need to be watered every day,” he laughed.
With school now back in session, students have been able to resume care of the area with weeding and laying mulch. Sester has also heard from other teachers and community members who have offered to become involved.
“I’ve gotten great help from Mr. Meyer in the ag department and other teachers offering to be a part of the project, and Dave and Amy Brewer from the Mendota Gardeners Club have also been a big help,” he said.
The project has also had the support of the administration. MHS Principal Denise Aughenbaugh said the project is a great learning opportunity for students to be exposed to natural habitats they might otherwise never experience.
“I know we consider ourselves a rural school district, but we still have students who do not have their own yard or have the opportunity to plant and garden,” she said. “We are confident both current and future students will benefit from this project.”
Looking to the future, Sester hopes to incorporate the butterfly garden as a unit in his geography classes every semester. “I would love to keep it going,” he said. “Students can take care of the garden, identify species and hopefully, it can also be utilized schoolwide by science classes, ag, and other parts of the curriculum. My ultimate goal would be to have beehives that could also be used for science classes and across the curriculum. I don’t know if the funding will be there to expand on what we’ve done, but we can at least continue with the upkeep of the area we already have and put in the time.”
Sester said he is encouraged by the success of this project and its effect on his students. “We have a beautiful, large campus but we are so used to it, sometimes you take what you have for granted,” he said. “The kids thought this was something they could do and I told them they would also be leaving a lasting legacy for the community even when they’re no longer at MHS.”