Deb Perryman's love for the environment started at an early age and has become her life's passion.
The Elgin High School teacher was recently named the 2014 Environmental Educator of the Year by the Environmental Education Association of Illinois. The award came as a surprise, said Perryman, who doesn't know who nominated her.
"It's an honor to receive this award, and my real reward is showing students how they can make a real impact for environmental causes," said Perryman, 48, who lives in Streamwood. "My students aren't just learning the history of endangered species or the impact of pollution, they are getting involved in the work and helping to change the world around them. It's so hands on and real world, and it's purposeful. They can find a way to be part of the solution. It's just such a practical science."
Perryman said the study of environmental science encompasses many other sciences, including mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, sociology and history.
She has taught biology and environmental science at Elgin High for more than 20 years and was recognized for her creative use of roughly 40 acres of natural areas next to the high school as an instructional tool.
"We're trying to restore it back to the time it was a farm," Perryman said. "We've got an oak woodlands, which are more endangered than tropical rain forests. A portion of it is going to be prairie, butterfly and hummingbird gardens."
The restoration project has been ongoing for 20 years. "We finally got to the point where we're conducting prescribed burns, which is really what you need to do to conduct the restoration," Perryman said.
Students harvest seeds in the fall before each burn and scatter them across the land again before winter sets in so the prairie plants resurface in the spring.
The 40 acres serve as an ecological treasure trove for students to explore. It includes a fen -- wetland created by mineral-rich surface water or ground water and inhabited by unique plants and animals -- a flood plain and creek.
Perryman's environmental science students lead field trips there for area elementary schools, allowing them an opportunity to teach what they have learned in class.
"The highest level of learning is when you teach someone. That's when you really know it," Perryman said.
Perryman's latest class project is spearheading an advocacy campaign about "Miss Martha," the last passenger pigeon on the planet that died 100 years ago, to promote protecting biodiversity.
Passenger pigeons were once the most populous species of birds in North America. At the height of their population, there were between 3 billion and 6 billion of them, Perryman said.
The boisterous birds were often thought of as a nuisance as they traveled in huge flocks. They were somewhat of a delicacy and hunted to the point of extinction within 40 years, she added.
"(People) just never thought they could ever go extinct because there were so many of them," Perryman said.
The campaign resulted in Gov. Pat Quinn naming September "the Month of the Passenger Pigeon." Perryman's students are working with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's office to push Congress and President Barack Obama to declare 2014 the year of the passenger pigeon.
Senior Karla Aguirre of Elgin admits she signed up for environmental science "because I thought it would be an easy class." Instead, she's been involved in the passenger pigeon project for two years. Furthermore, she says, Perryman's teaching is "absolutely incredible. She teaches in a way that makes you hungry, makes you want to know more, and leaves you curious. She helps you find where you think you want to go with your idea and lets you flow with it."
Elgin High's environmental students are organizing a national biodiversity teach-in to mark the 100th anniversary of Miss Martha's death this September. It will involve a series of webinars with national speakers on biodiversity topics, including protecting the Blanding's turtles, the impact of balloons and plastics on the oceans, the effect of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, on biodiversity, the decline of monarch butterfly populations, shore birds, and native plants. For more information, visit the students' webpage at nationalbiodiversityteachin.com.
"Our idea," Perryman said, "is that our webinar service will provide access to 3,000 individuals/classrooms."