By Erik Lopez, Taylor Pauls and Kathiana Torres

Over the past three years, the three of us and 15 other students from our high school, Common Ground, have collected vegetation and invertebrate data from six habitat restoration study plots at two sites in our hometown, New Haven, CT.

All told, we have planted approximately 100 native plants and collected and identified 5,148 insects at the study plots. We’ve used 13 pairs of tweezers, 10 microscopes and a range of skills and academic disciplines to do it.

We are members of the nonprofit Common Ground Green Jobs Corps, which is conducting a three-year study at two sites – West River and Beaver Pond – to better understand the effects of habitat restoration in the city.

It’s all part of the New Haven Harbor Watershed Urban Wildlife Partnership, one of 17 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-led public/private partnerships across the country designed to connect city residents with nature (http://www.fws.gov/urban/partnerships.php).

Within the New Haven city limits, Common Ground (http://commongroundct.org/) includes an urban farm, an urban forest, an environmental center and our high school, the nation’s longest-running environmental charter school. Common Ground’s mission is to “cultivate habits of healthy living and sustainable environmental practice among a diverse community of children, families and adults.”

We are doing this study to see if habitat restoration at the urban sites is working. We’re being scientifically rigorous as we monitor the sites, help analyze data and produce reports about the results. We hope that by increasing the diversity of native plant species we will also increase invertebrate diversity and abundance and create better habitat for wildlife in New Haven.

For instance, in 2014 when vegetation at the Beaver Pond site was 32 percent native plants, 55 percent mulch, 4 percent turf and 4 percent invasive plants, we noticed a drop in insect diversity and abundance. We brought that information to our urban wildlife refuge partners and asked them to use less mulch and more native plants. It worked! In summer 2015, the vegetation was 70 percent native plants, 25 percent mulch and 5 percent invasive plants. Invertebrate abundance and diversity more than tripled compared to 2014.

This project is important to us. It has given us meaningful summer employment. We’ve learned job skills like being responsible, showing up on time and planning for the day ahead. We’ve learned life skills, discovered career interests and seen how hard work can result in real outcomes for the environment and our community.

Each of us likes the project for slightly different reasons.

Erik’s favorite part has been seeing the spiders under the microscope. For the first time ever he was able to see all the little parts of the body. The thing he will remember most about the project is the long hours looking into the scope and having to check carefully to see if the insects were the same or different.

Taylor loved looking at the insects under the microscope, too. “It was as if they came alive and we could see all the detail in their body structure. The biggest lesson I will take away from this experience is learning all the orders of insects, like Homoptera, Hemiptera, Diptera, Hymenoptera,” she says. “Being involved in this project made me even more passionate about working in a scientific field; I really enjoyed collecting and analyzing the data and discussing the results.”

For Kathiana, the coolest part was seeing the results of the work that she and her co-workers did in planting and taking care of the habitat restoration sites. “Realizing that the work we did is actually making an impact is really great,” she says

Erik Lopez, Taylor Pauls and Kathiana Torres are members of the Common Ground Green Jobs Corps. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Georgia Basso and Audubon Connecticut biologist Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe contributed to this report.