Students at Evanston Township High School don’t have to get on a bus to explore the wetlands, the prairie, or the forest. Thanks to Craig Smith, they just walk out of their classroom to an adjoining three-acre tract of school property, for decades occupied by little more than drifting litter and a few parked cars. Using fund-raisers and student volunteers, Smith, who teaches an anatomy and physiology class and AP environmental science at the Illinois school, has turned the former wasteland into a living classroom—a linked trio of ecosystems in which students can see, smell, and touch what they study.
“It was just a dingy lot,” recalls Patty Satkiewicz, a senior in Smith’s class who plans to study biology in college. For Smith, who says it’s hard to excite kids about studying the natural world if they’ve never seen it up close, transforming the property became a teachable moment. During the 1997-98 school year, he and his students ran initial tests, including mapping and soil testing, on the terrain. “He had us do surveys of the land and identify plants in a lot of the forest,” says Monica Garreton, one of Smith’s former students, who’s now in college. After the school board approved the nature center proposal, the landscape architect and crews hired to build it implemented the plan more or less as the class had suggested.
Although not quite finished, the nature center had its grand opening this past fall, with Smith’s AP students acting as nature guides and leading Evanstonians through the trails and landscapes. The plot includes aquatic habitats, a forest area, three types of prairies, and a savannah. Turtles, bullfrogs, and toad tadpoles already inhabit the aquatic areas, and oak and hickory saplings are taking root. Smith hopes to put up bluebird houses soon to attract even more wildlife to the area. There’s even an outdoor classroom on-site, complete with benches and a lectern where he can tell his students about the environment that literally surrounds them. As he says, “It’s real life.”