By Crystal Wylie
Register News Writer
Imagine reading a text book about a salamander in its natural habitat and then stepping outside to actually see a salamander in its natural habitat.
Students at Glenn Marshall Elementary and B. Michael Caudill Middle schools are aiding in the construction of a wetland near the school buildings that will soon be the new home to many plants and organisms.
Through the vision of two science teachers and two Eastern Kentucky University biology professors, the wetland project broke ground Friday.
“I’m trying to get my students to fall in love with science, but they have to get outside and immerse themselves in it,” said fourth grade science teacher Christy Johnson.
Johnson, along with middle school science teacher Laverne Lindquist and biology professors Drs. David Brown and Stephen Richter, collaborated on a proposal and were awarded an $8,600 Bluegrass PRIDE grant for an outdoor classroom.
The grant will fund a pavilion, walking paths, recycling bins and energy audit kits that students can take home and use to measure the energy efficiency of their homes, Brown said.
The $8,600 was matched by the Sheltowee Environmental Education Coalition funded by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Partners program to build the wetland.
“This will be a place where teachers can bring their classes to do water quality testing, count birds and study plants and organism,” Brown said.
He and Richter both have children who attend Glenn Marshall Elementary.
“We’d love to see a lot of these kids at EKU someday with this kind of background in environmental science,” he said.
Richter said the goal for the wetland is to get plants and algae to grow, which attracts snails and insects.
“That provides food for salamanders and frogs, which provides food for snakes and birds, then turtles and small mammals,” he said. “Over the next 10 years or so, we should have a well established habitat.”
The wetland is being constructed in a dip of the gently rolling hills behind the elementary school.
The site is just a few minute walk from the schools, over the hill from a tributary of Otter Creek — all located on three acres of school property.
All day Friday, groups of students from both schools trekked down the makeshift path to work on each phase of the construction. Students raked soil, cleared rocks and laid PVC liner.
Students secured the liner with stakes in areas marked by Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service who is directing the wetland project.
Biebighauser used a surveying level, a tool used to measure the shape and depth of the wetland, to make sure each stake was positioned correctly.
Initially, the top soil was pulled off and set aside with an excavator operated by Farris Osborne of Richmond, who helped construct the Kirksville wetland in 2009. Osborne then replaced the soil to secure the liner, which helps retain water and keep the wetland wet.
The soil is covered with straw to prevent erosion and branches are added to provide perches for the small creatures that will eventually live there.
Then they sit back and wait for rain to do its job, Brown said.
Naturally, there will be wet and dry spells where the depth of the water in the very center of the wetland could range from 16 to 26 inches deep, he said.
Historically, settlers of America saw wetlands as a nuisance and the consensus was to avoid or drain “these foul breeding grounds,” according to the website for the Center for Wetlands and Stream Restoration in Morehead, where Biebighauser works.
But current research shows that wetlands serve as important areas for biodiversity, water reclamation, and soil conservation, the website states.
According to the EPA, wetlands are second only to the ocean in the number of organisms inhabiting them.
Biebighauser has traveled the states to oversee several similar projects, including wetland construction at Kirksville Elementary and EKU.
His book, “Wetland Restoration and Construction: A Technical Guide” is derived from his work in restoring and building wetlands and to promote the ecosystems that thrive in them.
School administrators often are reluctant to authorize the installation of wetlands, he wrote, because they view them as a breeding ground for disease-carrying, pesky mosquitoes that could be a threat or annoyance to children, teachers, staff and parents.
But, contrary to common belief, building a wetland can actually lower mosquito numbers. That is because “swallows, dragonflies, frogs and toads will prey on adult mosquitoes during the day with bats taking over at night,” he said.
Students, teachers and volunteers will continue to work on eliminating invasive species of plants in the area such as bush honeysuckle and cattails, said Richter.
And because the schools — located off the Robert Martin Bypass — are surrounded by cattle pastures and suburban areas, the wetland will provide a new habitat for native organisms, he said.
Ultimately, Johnson wants her students to gain a sense of responsibility for the environment by maintaining the wetland and studying the life forms which it will inhabit.
“This experience will show students the impact they have on their environment and the importance of their role in protecting it,” she said.
Crystal Wylie can be reached at email@example.com or 623-1669, ext. 6696.