COD's prairie gives students hands-on education

By Ann Rondeau
College of DuPage
Posted4/11/2018 12:46 PM
  • College of DuPage's campus in Glen Ellyn has more than 40 acres of natural areas, including the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, which serves as both an educational and a community resource.

    College of DuPage's campus in Glen Ellyn has more than 40 acres of natural areas, including the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, which serves as both an educational and a community resource. Daily Herald File Photo

I enjoy walking the campus of College of DuPage at this time of year, seeing the buds forming on the trees and our beautiful prairie returning to life. Sometimes we become impatient for spring to arrive, but the natural cycle of seasons, however slow moving it seems, is awe-inspiring.

This is a reminder of the role the outdoors plays in our lives and the importance of maintaining these areas for our enjoyment and education.

People may not be aware that COD'S campus has more than 40 acres of natural areas. Students gain hands-on opportunities right outside the classroom door, while the community can explore the many aspects that comprise the prairie and learn how these native plants once dominated the local landscape.

Our Russell R. Kirt Prairie, for example, consists of nearly six acres of marsh, a one-acre retention pond, 11 acres of reconstructed prairie and savanna, and a quarter-mile of display/seed production beds.

Visitors can explore the area via winding trails, with a stretch that is even wheelchair accessible. The campus also has the Ecological Study Area and the B.J. Hoddinott Wildlife Sanctuary.

Remic Ensweiller, the college's outdoor lab and prairie manager, stays busy regardless of the season. At the end of March, he oversaw burning activities to remove invasive woody brush. These burns, in addition to prescribed fires of the areas in the spring and fall, can increase diversity, keep undesirable weeds away and stimulate the soil.

Remic also is enlisting students for outdoor work days, during which volunteers cut brush, collect and process seeds, transplant, and weed invasive plants. From the end of May through August, Remic and our biology faculty will lead free tours of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie for the community.

During the past year, Remic has undertaken a new project on campus as the college received several grants, including one from the Honeybee Conservancy, to install two beehives in the natural areas.

A partnership with Kline Creek Farm provided the expertise and training to maintain the beehive, which benefits the surrounding natural areas with needed pollination and functions as a learning lab for students and visitors.

Our students are embracing this initiative, and the Environmental Club recently organized the first Honeybee Fair. The event gave participants a chance to speak with representatives from such organizations as Bike-a-Bee, City Bee Savers, Kline Creek Farm and Morton Arboretum, as well as to tour the campus beehives.

Our horticulture program trains and educates students to design and maintain outdoor spaces where we live, work and play. Among the program's many degrees and certificates is the Sustainable Agriculture program that trains students for careers in urban farming.

Our on-campus urban farm features 10 raised beds, a high tunnel that allows students to continue hands-on work when the weather turns colder, and a green roof located on top of a storage facility for experiential learning.

Last August, the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association hosted its prestigious Summer Field Day at College of DuPage, in large part because our program maintains a strong relationship with the association.

During the ILCA's 2018 Landscape Design Contest for college and high school students, College of DuPage earned four awards, including first place for Tom Eisenhart in College CAD Landscape Plan and Carolyn Gange in College Hand-Drawn Designs.

At the recent National Collegiate Landscape Competition, College of DuPage's team, which consisted of 13 members, placed fourth among all community colleges, was the top-ranked Illinois school and finished 17th among all community colleges and universities in the country.

I am always gratified to see our students competing and placing at these competitions. These achievements reflect their hard work and that of our faculty. I am especially impressed by our horticulture program. Its graduates can be found throughout DuPage County affecting our lives through their caring work for the outdoors.

Russell Kirt, College of DuPage professor emeritus of biology, once wrote about the prairie that "its natural beauty starts to unfold with the multiple of wildflowers blooming in the spring to the lush gold-brown grasses in the autumn."

As the weather continues to improve and we begin to spend more time outdoors, let us all look around and appreciate the value that the physical environment brings to our lives.

• Ann Rondeau is president of the College of DuPage. Her column runs monthly in Neighbor.

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