Fran Wachter's science students are no slouches. Inspired by a fifth grade field trip to the Cache River Wetland, the students developed and began a restoration plan in sixth grade, advanced it in seventh grade and are now—as eighth-graders—ambassadors to younger students who will continue their legacy.
"The students saw they could make a difference, and people noticed it," said Wachter, who teaches middle school science at Creal Springs School in Illinois. "It reinforced that sometimes there are things in your life you can't control, but when you work as a group, you can really make a difference."
And what a difference the students made, as they have been restoring and protecting the wetlands home to hundreds of endangered species. "Wetland Warriors: Restoring Health to Our Wetlands" won the 2011 Disney's Planet Challenge grand prize for middle schools.
"The kids loved everything about it," Wachter said. "The harsher the conditions, the more they loved it. We went in January to do trail restoration and it was freezing, and they loved it. We were there in the heat and they came back and bragged to the other kids, 'We're so tough!'"
With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and a GK-12 graduate student from Southern Illinois University, the middle-schoolers took a multi-prong approach to their project.
They transplanted pickerelweed plants in the Cache River Wetland, built and posted nesting boxes to research brood parasitism in bird species, created more than 200 educational binders for local teachers, made and donated children's books to the community's Wetland Center, presented research at a science symposium, created a website and more.
Now in their last year at the tiny rural school, students have become mentors to the kids who will continue their work. "The restoration project is going to take decades," Wachter said. "I know these kids are going to take their families when they're grown and say ‘That's the boardwalk we helped build. We planted the pickerelweed there.'
"Disney has given kids hope, an opportunity to be seen as important in a global way."
Dr. Wade Hudgens was the superintendent of Marion Community Unit School District Number 2, which includes Creal Springs School, when "Wetland Warriors: Restoring Health to Our Wetlands" began and, later, was recognized by Disney's Planet Challenge. Now retired, Dr. Hudgens recently discussed the impact of the contest on the students and their district.
How did the Wetland Warriors project impact the district?
The notoriety it brought to the little village of Creal Springs and the whole school district was extreme. The zoo and science center in St. Louis want to work with the kids on projects. The district and class have received awards statewide, nationally. Mrs. Wachter was Illinois Science Teacher of the Year for 2011. There is the potential for additional grant funds because people want to get involved.
What does this recognition do for students?
Southern Illinois is a very depressed area. About 50 percent of the kids in Creal Springs live in poverty. Education is their only way out. That is a critical part of this story. Just because somebody doesn't have money doesn't mean they're ignorant or they can't achieve. All they need is a helping hand. Disney has given kids hope, an opportunity to be seen as important in a global way. These kids have worth. They have value.
What does a contest like this do for education in general?
The industrial model for education has been worn out for years. You need to teach kids how to think, how to gain information—because information is power. We can't just take information and fill people's jugs with it as we see fit. We have to show students that there's a source of living water, and you take your own jug and fill it. We'll show you where the water is and we'll teach you how to get water in your jug, and from then on, it's up to you to never stop learning.