To start their summer vacation, a group of Sycamore Middle School students spent Tuesday digging holes and planting more than 600 native plants in hopes of improving water retention and reducing flooding.
Students are members of the G-Force Club, which stands for Girls Force, in middle school, a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) club for girls.
Their efforts were part of the RISE Challenge Illinois program in which students submitted proposals. The group was invited to present them at the state level to a panel of expert judges. They finished second and fifth in the state and won $4,000 to use to improve the watershed on their school grounds.
The money was used to buy plants, a trash can and a dog trash can along the walking path. The club has also purchased a sign advising residents “how to be a good neighbor to your watershed” which will be installed soon.
Jodi Gudewicz and Elizabeth Peterson, teachers at Sycamore Middle School and leaders of the girls’ STEM club, said the group was designed to help its members gain confidence in science and math.
“Basically a safe space for them to hang out,” Peterson said.
The club started in 2019 and has grown over the past three years. It has 22 members and has become one of the busiest clubs in the school.
Justin Hames, science teacher at Sycamore Middle School, came to help the club factory. He said one of the great things he saw about the club was the number of members who joined as sixth graders and continued through their eighth grade year.
Members of the DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Master Naturalists, Sycamore High School staff and families of band members also volunteered Tuesday. Country Road Greenhouse in Rochelle provided the plants at a reduced price.
The club has worked with several local organizations to provide learning opportunities for its members, including the Society of Women Engineers at Northern Illinois University and Peggy Doty, a University of Illinois extension educator who specializes in resource natural resources and environmental stewardship.
Doty also partners with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve and the DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District, and operates the Nature Center in Russell Woods. Doty pitched the club at RISE Challenge Illinois last summer, and the group began working on the project in October.
The Rise Challenge is a program of the Environmental Education Association of Illinois in which students in grades 5 through 10 create proposals for action related to natural hazards.
The flooding was close to the house, as the fields on the south side of the school are frequent flooding areas, often flowing down Highway 23 to the east. So the group decided to do their project on the floods.
Doty, Gudewicz and Peterson worked with the girls, providing them with information about the watershed and the factors that lead to poor water retention. The instructors, however, could not direct their decisions or help write their proposals.
“We just let it go and let the kids take over,” Gudewicz said. “It was scary, but amazing.”
The girls understood why the flooding was happening and attributed it mainly to their school. They discovered that the school’s foundation and lawn were factors, and that the holding area south of the lawn was full of plants not native to the area that were not good for water retention.
G-Force Club member Callista Morton said the project was eye-opening.
“We’ve learned that the watershed doesn’t just affect us, but the wildlife as well,” Morton said.
The group created two action proposals and video submissions titled “Waste on the Prairie” and “Flooding on the Prairie Path”, in which they sought funding to plant native wetland plants that would help reduce flooding problems in the region.
They researched which plants had long roots for water retention and selected those that would also flower and serve as pollinators.
“They’re just amazing,” Doty said of the students. “I never imagined they would have done all of this.”