Students not only are eradicating invasive alien species from the Dempsey Middle School wetlands, they're also learning skills for the workplace.
Eight students who will be eighth- or ninth-graders next school year are taking part in the Summer Ecology Project run by Paul Olen, Extended Day Program teacher at the middle school.
The first-year program has two sessions that meet three days a week for six hours a day, including classroom time and work outside in the wetlands and forest area behind the school.
Olen, who has a background in field biology and horticulture, said he noticed the wetlands were being degraded by invasive species.
"The No. 2 threat behind habitat destruction is invasive alien species," he said. "This is a very timely issue in the biological field."
Students in the program are taught about the plants that don't belong, then get out into the woods to remove them.
But they're also learning skills that could help them in their future careers.
"Project-based learning is a buzzword right now, but this is what we're doing," he said. "Students are working on a project and learning how to problem-solve, how to prepare for a job and how to work as a team."
Olen said he's instructing students on how to dress and what tools they need for field work, as well as practical tips such as bringing lunch and enough water for being outside all day.
"A lot of our students don't spend nearly as much time outside as we used to," he said. "They are learning hands-on practical skills that include using science and landscaping equipment."
The students have completed so much work that some local professionals in the field, who have served as guest speakers during the program, have been impressed the young teens could do it all, Olen said.
"I've worked with some of these kids in the classroom, and some of them aren't what I would call outgoing or particularly adventurous," he said. "But they've been challenged, and they have risen to the occasion. They've been inspired by the outdoors and have been willing to try new things."
Olen said it has been a pleasant surprise to see what piques students' interest -- including what he calls "grape vine goo."
"One of the vines we are removing can interfere with the health of large walnut trees, and when it's cut, the vine produces a goo," he said. "The students have been researching medicinal uses for the goo and want to develop insect repellent and other products using the goo."
One of the skills they are learning for workplace readiness is adaptation. For example, when students leave certain tools in the classroom, Olen has them think on their feet and come up with ways to get the job done without those tools.
"They need to learn how to improvise and how to continue to work even when things change," he said.
Olen said the program meets a number of needs, including educational instruction, community service, workplace-readiness skills, physical exercise and problem-solving skills.
"We definitely want to keep this program going and even expand it next year," he said. "We already have kids that want to attend next year as well."