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Greenfield/Hales Corners — Seventh-graders at Whitnall Middle School took a hands-on approach in science class, casting handfuls of seed on the ground of the Whitnall School Forest.

Seeding the forest on Dec. 1 was a part of a larger science project to restore the school forest. This summer, Whitnall installed a new fiber optic cable, part of which ran directly through a section of the forest, leaving the vegetation and land disturbed.

"This provided a perfect opportunity for students to address an authentic problem: How is land reclaimed and rehabilitated to a condition that is ecologically and economically sound?" said science teacher Laura Cerletty.

Planting a program

Cerletty and two other teachers, Brian Carel and Paula Alexopoulos, got together to see how they could work solving this problem into the curriculum. Once the school received a $2,497 grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board (WEEB) to do some sort of project, the teachers began putting together specific lessons.

Starting in September, students dove headfirst into the program. They were divided into groups for the project and took a variety of field trips to local sites, where they learned about what is involved in a project like this.

Students visited the Hidden Oak Savanna to learn about the process of restoring an oak savanna. They stopped by Wehr Nature Center to learn how to monitor and make comparisons between ecosystems. And they roamed through their own backyard, the Whitnall School Forest, to map the area and collect data about abiotic and biotic factors. They also did research at the school library to learn more about the history of the forest.

Once they collected their research, each group developed a plan to rehabilitate the forest. The best plan in each class was submitted to the School Forest Task Force, which includes local ecology club member Delene Hanson, high school biology teachers Cody Smith and Shanna Bradley, head of building and grounds Matt Karshana, and Cerletty, the school forest coordinator.

The task force gave the students feedback on their ideas and developed a schedule for carrying out those plans, which involved people from all over the district.

Taking root

Whitnall staff and high school students volunteered to help clear the area of the invasive plants, and under the guidance of the DNR forester for southeast Wisconsin, removed unhealthy and unproductive trees. The trunks of those trees will go to the technical education department, where teacher Scott Jaeckel will teach the middle school students how to build benches out of them.

The seventh-graders did the initial seeding themselves on Dec. 1. In the spring, members of the Whitnall High School ROTC will dig the holes for native oak trees, and in the next two years the area will be maintained through mowing and seeding.

"This area will always need to cared for, just as a person continuously cares for their own property," Cerletty said.

Thanks to the work of the seventh-graders, the new area will be an oak savanna that is very similar to what would have been the likely ecosystem before human settlement, long before the fiber optic cables were installed.

"The teachers and I came up with the idea and wrote the grant, but when it came to researching and putting together the plan, it was all student driven," Cerletty said. "They did the research, came up with the plan, and are helping to see it through."

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