‘The Prairie Is the Catalyst’ for a Living Laboratory

In Illinois, Enbridge gift of 20 acres creates thriving native plants, migrating pollinators and transformational learning for high school students
May 2, 2024 12:20 PM ET
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Paul Ritter, left, and Cal Hackler look over native plants in bloom on the 20-acre Kickapoo Prairie pollinator plot near Cayuga, IL.

Can you tell a deer tick from a black-legged tick? What about the lone star tick from the dog tick?

Students from Pontiac Township High School in central Illinois are learning to identify them all, and their research is contributing to regional public health information available on tick-borne diseases.

The tick project is one of many initiatives with impact undertaken by the students. They’ve also planted 20 acres of native plants, tracked monarch butterfly populations and feeding patterns, and re-established a species of reptile that had been extirpated from the state.

“There are very few kids in the state who are able to do this kind of learning in a non-traditional setting,” says Paul Ritter, a science instructor at the Pontiac, IL-based high school.

“And why are we able to do this? Because we have the land.”

In 2021, Enbridge donated 20 acres of prairie property to Operation Endangered Species (OES), a program founded in 2011 by Ritter who also serves as the non-profit organization’s executive director.

Every year on April 22, the world marks Earth Day, an annual celebration of environmental protection around the globe. At Enbridge, sustainability is central to everything we do, and we also support community sustainability projects that help improve, grow and nurture our environment.

Kickapoo Prairie, named by the students for the Indigenous Tribe that lived longest in the region, is located in Cayuga, IL, just a five-minute drive from the school. It serves as a classroom for multiple disciplines—biology, physics, English, history, math, engineering.

“When I say it’s a living laboratory, that’s 100% what it is,” Ritter explains. “You can look at it as a piece of property, or you can look at it as a changer of lives.”

In 2023, the students worked with the school superintendent to design an outdoor learning center at the prairie. Another project in development is a communications tower that will deliver free broadband internet to Pontiac High students, ensuring every student has access to high-speed internet at home to support their learning.

“If we didn’t have this property, none of this would have happened,” Ritter says. “The reality is, giving the kids the tools to make these things happen is what makes real change take place—not just in this ecosystem, but within themselves. This is what carries them on into the future.”

The students’ long-term goal, passed down from year to year, is to return the entire 20 acres to their natural prairie habitat. Though Illinois is known as the Prairie State, less than 0.01% of the state’s original 21 million acres of prairie remain, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

In 2023, students planted hundreds of thousands of native plant seeds to give nature a helping hand.

In this project and others, Ritter and the students work with the Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi communities, who have lived on the land for thousands of years. Indigenous cultural leaders visit the school and the prairie where everyone works together and shares culture, adding another level of depth and meaning to the restoration work.

Cal Hackler, a science instructor at the high school, says the learning experience the prairie supports “is incomparable to any other experiences they’ve had from an academic standpoint.”

Adds Hackler: “The prairie is the catalyst. When kids come up with ideas, we give them the tools to do it. You can’t hold them back. They want to do, and this space lets them do.”

One student sent Hackler and Ritter a thank-you letter describing the prairie’s impact on her life. She says her self-confidence has increased, and she recognizes that every mistake is a chance to work harder and grow.

Working on the prairie, the student sees what is possible, and what can be created, Hackler says.

“And that is the pinnacle of learning—creating.”