Visitors to the Homewood Farmers Market on Saturday, June 4, had the chance to learn about the interconnected system of species that make up oak woodlands from the Homewood Science Center’s spring conservation interns.
Lezlie Higgins of Homewood paused from her work putting the finishing touches on a poster to explain the various kinds of birds found in oak woodlands and their role in that ecosystem. She had information about their diets and habits.
Next to her table, Joy Benjamin and Kaylen Cagle, also of Homewood, presented information about oak trees and how they support neighboring species.
Around the corner, Anderson Pries of Homewood was prepared to talk about controlled burns and how they are used to help manage plant life in the woodland. He also had information about the different kinds of plants found in the woodland, from native to invasive species.
The four middle schoolers were among a dozen interns presenting their work at the market, part of the biannual conservation internship offered by the science center.
The spring internship was supervised by Nicole Fuller, a Chicago Public Schools teacher.
“I’m a middle school science teacher, so this is in my wheelhouse,” she said.
It wasn’t just the topic she was attracted to, but the opportunity to help kids get a sense for STEMpathy, a term that combines STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — with empathy, a way of looking at the world of nature with respect for the roles and connections of all the species that make up an ecosystem.
“I’m really passionate about getting kids connected to nature,” she said.
The internship does just that, not only teaching kids about the natural world, but giving them opportunities to engage with it.
During the spring internship, students studied oak woodlands, but they also went to the oak woodland in Izaak Walton Nature Preserve to help with preservation efforts.
“We actually took loppers and cut down some of the invasive species,” she said. “We took down cherry trees and buckthorn, and then we sowed it with native seeds. Our goal was to help try to restore this oak woodland.”
Fuller said getting kids actively involved in preservation helps them learn about stewardship. By seeing nature up close, they get a better sense for the oak trees and their relationships with all the species around the woodland. They can see how preserving the trees helps all the woodland plants, animals and insects thrive, she said.
“It’s really empowering, because then kids become compassionate,” she said.
The lesson in empathy was supported along the way by science instruction. Fuller said her husband, Ryan Fuller, who is a scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago, helped bring in guest speakers to help the students understand how the ecosystem works.
The poster session at the market was the final project for the interns, giving them a chance to create displays and explain to an audience what they learned.
“The best we could ever do is have kids tell their story,” Fuller said.
Photos by Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle.