Susan Lenz, in white T-shirt, evaluates samples during an environmental science class outing.

Where Conservation Meets the Classroom

Students at Barrington High School have been getting their feet wet in conservation issues – literally – thanks to the Barrington Area Conservation Trust. Learn how this new generation is learning to take action.

Susan Lenz, in white T-shirt, evaluates samples during an environmental science class outing.
Susan Lenz, in white T-shirt, evaluates samples during an environmental science class outing.

Kartik Sarangmath has always had an interest in nature. Every summer, his parents take him and his younger sister, Aditi, to national parks like Glacier park in Montana, Yosemite in California, Yellowstone in Wyoming and Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Last summer, the suburban high schooler took part in a unique internship through the Barrington Area Conservation Trust (BACT). For three hours a day, the junior at Barrington High School (BHS), along with another student, shadowed staff and volunteers working on stream monitoring at Pederson Preserve, located across from the high school. Sarangmath was amazed by the experience.

“It really opened my eyes about the things we take for granted every day,” says Sarangmath, who plans to study science and technology in college. “When most people drive by a preserve, they think it’s just grass. This program taught us what good and bad plants are and what they do to the ecosystem and animals. They taught us how to plant native plants. We learned about stream monitoring and how macroinvertebrates are used as indicators to assess water quality. Mostly, the program taught us how important the environment is, especially right next to our school. Everything is connected.”

BACT seeks to preserve the region’s open spaces for current and future generations. Since it started in 2001, it has preserved nearly 500 acres of land, primarily through conservation easements, with the goal of preserving 1,000 acres by the year 2020.

BACT promotes conservation among area residents through numeous channels. Its latest program, Conservation@School, is a partnership with Barrington High School that introduces students to conservation through classroom programming, after-school volunteering, summer internships and other special events.

Susan Lenz is the coordinator for Conservation@School. A teacher by trade, Lenz left the classroom to work with organizations like park districts and conservation districts.

“We saw a need,” she says. “We have a preserve across from Barrington High School with a stream that runs through it that is underutilized. How can we get high school kids outside to work with the environment? I enjoy helping high school students to learn about conservation and the environment. These kids are interested in what they can do to help out.”

The BHS partnership is one of many ways that BACT reaches the community. It also promotes conservation techniques through its Conservation@Work (aimed at environmentally conscious businesses) and Conservation@Home (aimed at home gardeners) programs.

In 2015, Conservation@School was launched with the support of BHS teachers, students and staff. Honors and AP environmental students now engage with the preserve by learning about stream ecology and water quality monitoring of Flint Creek, which passes through the property.

“We thought we could complement what they were covering in the classroom,” Lenz says. “We meet the needs of 220 students through real hands-on, life experience. It’s wonderful to track things on computers and look at trends, but it’s important to also get out there and see it. It’s amazing to see these kids when they have an ‘aha’ moment.”

Before Conservation@School began, BACT was already working with BHS horticulture volunteers on new native plant cultivation projects in the school’s greenhouses.

Mike Kedzie is a biology and environmental science teacher at BHS. Last year, his students planted 5,000 purple coneflowers in the school’s greenhouse, half of which were replanted at Pederson Preserve as part of Earth Day. This year, Kedzie’s classes are planting prairie plants and clearing the creek of invasive species.

“We’re trying to encourage students to be citizens of science,” says Kedzie. “I like the message that this program sends. When we talk about environmental issues, it’s usually doom and gloom. Kids hear about things like climate change and the soil being depleted. But thanks to this idea of conservation in the classroom, we can show students how the little things can make a positive impact in the community.”

Other schools have environmental clubs, says Lenz, but Conservation@School is different.

“We are reaching out to the students to meet their needs, wherever they may be: in the classroom, after school, and so on,” she says. “The students who I’ve met really like this stuff. That’s why we developed the internship program, which was a wonderful learning opportunity for the high school students in our area. We brought them to the field to learn about basic plants. We talked about the ecosystem and stream monitoring. We took samples from the river and analyzed them under the microscope and submitted the data to an Illinois river monitoring network.”

Lenz hopes eventually to expand the program to Harper College in Palatine.

“This program feels different,” adds Kedzie. “It’s nice to have the knowledge and support of BACT. This gives students a taste of what environmental science is like. When BACT is able to coordinate these events, it takes pressure off us teachers and gives us time to incorporate this program into everyday learning.”

Last spring, about 50 BHS students joined staff and BACT volunteers to set new native plants and remove debris from Pederson Preserve. The effort was part of BACT’s fourth annual Earth Day Work Day. Sarangmath was part of the group that participated.

“It was great,” he says. “I got to meet some new people. It was the first time I’ve really helped improve the environment.”

Lenz says the possibilities for the program are endless. BACT leaders, who meet regularly with teachers, hope to not only expand programming but offer field trips to organic farms.

“Hopefully, we’re creating a canvas or experience to cultivate our future environmental stewards,” Lenz says. “If you don’t get the kids outside, they’re not going to care about the future of the environment. I can see it in action.”

Kedzie has seen a difference among some of his students.

“Conservation strikes a chord with certain students,” he says. “I’ve seen some students go on to volunteer for different environment-related events. Some go on to study science in college. I really like what this program has brought to the classroom. I think the interest is only going to grow.”

Sarangmath has noticed his colleagues’ newfound interest.

“I know kids my age are starting to think more about the environment,” he says. “My generation will be affected by the environment. We know it’s important, but we don’t know how we can help. I think programs like this will help draw more awareness, and hopefully get more students involved.”