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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

RENO FWO: Smithridge STEM Academy Schoolyard Habitat Project

Region 8, August 28, 2017
Teacher Cori Zancanelli with a student on planting day at Smithridge STEM Academy.
Teacher Cori Zancanelli with a student on planting day at Smithridge STEM Academy. - Photo Credit: n/a
Students at Smithridge STEM Academy work together on planting day.
Students at Smithridge STEM Academy work together on planting day. - Photo Credit: n/a
Student watering a newly planted plant as part of the Schoolyard Habitat project at Smithridge STEM Academy.
Student watering a newly planted plant as part of the Schoolyard Habitat project at Smithridge STEM Academy. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Michelle Hunt

In 2016, Smithridge STEM Academy in Reno, Nevada, applied for and received a $5,000.00 grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 8 Schoolyard Habitat Program to implement a schoolyard habitat. Smithridge, a Title 1 school, emphasizes student inquiry and environmental awareness and it is a great example of a school that values habitat projects and recognizes that these types of projects are beneficial to the school’s students, teachers, administrators, as well as the surrounding community and native wildlife. In fact, Smithridge’s mission—“to inspire students through project-based learning and to solve real world problems through communication and collaboration using science, technology, engineering, math and art”--dovetails perfectly with a schoolyard habitat project. With a highly collaborative staff and motivated students, the school has been successfully embedding the schoolyard habitat project into students’ and teachers’ daily lives.

As part of the initial portion of this schoolyard habitat project, the school and its students came up with an excellent project design and an extremely well-written proposal. When news of the award reached the school, the administrators and teachers decided to announce the funding to the elementary students at a school assembly. Students all gathered in the cafeteria and were presented with a larger-than-life paper check to represent the grant funding and kick-off their project. The students’ reactions to this presentation were priceless—they all smiled and broke out in happy cheers! This was just the reaction that we love to see.

With their infectious excitement, students showed that they were ready to hit the ground running. They prepared for planting day by weeding, shoveling the decomposed granite to make a path and adding stones to mark out the path and habitat areas. When planting day dawned, students were anticipating getting their hands dirty and getting their schoolyard monarch and pollinator ready. As the 80 plants, including two species of native milkweed were lined up, the students waited patiently to hear the word “go!” Even with an unseasonably hot day, the students were undaunted. With trowels in hand, they picked out their plants and measured the depth of the planting hole needed for each plant. Students learned how to take each plant out of its pot and place it carefully in the ground. Some students were tasked with the very important job of adding water to the bottom of the planting holes and making sure that the seedlings were receiving enough water from that day onwards.

As a water-saving xeriscape utilizing all native, drought-tolerant plants, this project is an example of how schools can be environmentally proactive and save water in the Great Basin Desert. These types of projects use very little water because each plant is provisioned with a low-volume drip emitter. Water conservation not only helps to teach students about being good stewards of the environment, but also saves school districts large amounts of money due to the low water costs.

In addition to water conservation, this project helps many animal species native to this area. Students were particularly interested in helping the declining monarch butterfly and other pollinators such as Nevada’s native bees. They researched these important species’ needs and how they could help them on school grounds. Students discovered that the monarch numbers were going down over time and that monarchs need a special kind of native plant—milkweed. With knowledge of the monarchs and other pollinators’ biology, the students succeeded in creating a habitat to provide for their requirements, including milkweed leaves for the monarch caterpillars, nectar for adult monarchs, as well as various native bees, beetles, other butterflies, moths, and pollinating flies. Students are even planning to register the school’s habitat as a monarch waystation. These amazing kids are already making a difference!

Along with the monarch waystation, students have been working on specially designed bee homes for leafcutter and mason bees. However, student work is not ending with pollinator plants and bee houses; those who are interested and available over the summer are volunteering their time to help oversee project maintenance every Wednesday from 9-11 a.m., as part of the Smithridge Garden Club. Students are now eagerly waiting for the pollinators to find their new homes and hoping to see a monarch butterfly or globemallow bee checking out the restored habitat!

Michelle Hunt is the Schoolyard Habitat Coordinator at the Reno Fish and Wildlife Service Office.

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov