To start their summer break, a group of Sycamore Middle School students spent Tuesday digging holes and planting more than 600 native plants in hopes of improving water retention and reducing flooding.
The students are members of the G-Force Club, which stands for Girls Force, at the middle school, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) club for girls.
Their efforts were part of the RISE Challenge Illinois program in which the students submitted proposals. The group was invited to present them at the state level to a panel of expert judges. They finished second and fifth in the state and earned $4,000 to use toward improving the watershed on their school grounds.
The money went toward buying the plants, a garbage bin and dog waste bin along the walking path. The club also bought a sign informing locals “how to be a good neighbor to your watershed” that will be installed soon.
Jodi Gudewicz and Elizabeth Peterson, Sycamore Middle School teachers and leaders of the girls STEM club, said the group was designed to help its members gain confidence in science and math.
“Basically, a safe space for them to geek out,” Peterson said.
The club started in 2019 and has grown over the past three years. It boasts 22 members and has become one of the school’s most active clubs.
Justin Hames, a science teacher at Sycamore Middle School, came out to help the club plant. He said one of the great things he saw about the club was how many members joined as sixth graders and continued through their eighth-grade year.
Members of the DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb County master naturalists, Sycamore Middle School staff and group members’ families also volunteered Tuesday. Country Road Greenhouse of Rochelle provided the plants at a discount.
The club has worked with several local organizations to provide learning opportunities for its members, including Northern Illinois University’s Society of Women Engineers and Peggy Doty, a University of Illinois extension educator specializing in natural resources and environmental stewardship.
Doty also partners with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve and the DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District, and runs the nature center in Russell Woods. Doty introduced the club to the RISE Challenge Illinois last summer, and the group began working on the project in October.
The Rise Challenge is a program from the Environmental Education Association of Illinois, in which students in grades 5 through 10 create action proposals relating to natural hazards.
Flooding was close to home, as the fields on the school’s south side are frequent flood zones, often flowing over Route 23 to the east. So the group decided to do its project on flooding.
Doty, Gudewicz and Peterson worked with the girls, providing them with information on the watershed and factors that lead to poor water retention. The instructors, however, could not direct their decisions or help write their proposals.
“We just let go and let the kids take over,” Gudewicz said. “It was scary, but amazing.”
The girls worked out why the flooding was happening and attributed it mainly to their school. They found that the school’s foundation and sod lawn were factors, and the detention area south of the lawn was full of plants not native to the region that were wrong for water retention.
G-Force Club member Callista Morton said the project has been eye-opening.
“We learned that the watershed isn’t just effecting us, but the wildlife, too,” Morton said.
The group created two action proposals and video submissions titled “Waste on the Prairie” and “Flooding on the Prairie Path,” in which they aimed to get the funding to plant native wetland plants that would help reduce the area’s flood problems.
They researched which plants had long roots for water retention and selected those that also would bloom and serve as pollinators.
“They’re just amazing,” Doty said of the students. “I never would have imagined they would have done all of this.”