Share Tweet Share Email

NIU green community putting skills to work on campus

November 8, 2021

If you’ve enjoyed the beauty this fall of NIU’s East Lagoon and Montgomery Woods, the latter of which is home to a pair of great horned owls, you can thank our community of environmentally minded students, faculty, staff and alumni.

A portion of the western shoreline of NIU’s iconic East Lagoon, the creek that feeds into it, the gardens at Montgomery Hall and its adjacent forested areas have all had a facelift this past year.

Shoreline stabilization, native plantings, removal of invasive species such as buckthorn. It’s get-your-hands-dirty-and-your-feet-wet work that will pay dividends for generations of Huskies—and you’re likely to see more to come in the near future.

The latest largescale effort kicked off this semester with a class of students taught by Professor Holly Jones, who holds a joint appointment in environmental studies and biological sciences.

Professor Holly Jones prepares to drill holes for plant plugs.

Jones launched a new course called Restoration Ecology (BIOS 407 and 507) for both undergraduates and graduate students, whereby they apply what they learn in her class to campus environmental improvements. She hoped to enroll about 30 students, but interest was so high she topped out at 54.

The students this semester spent one day a week working in the field. They cleaned up the forested areas surrounding Montgomery Hall, weeded and replanted gardens surrounding the auditorium, and installed prairie and wetland plants along a 150-foot stretch of NIU’s East Lagoon. They’re also continually taking measurements, monitoring restoration progress, and writing about their experiences.

It’s hands on learning at its best.

“For me, as someone who is interested in working in the field of restoration, it’s really important to get formal education while working in the field,” said Antonio Del Valle, a third-year biology master’s student from Wisconsin. Del Valle came to NIU to study with Jones and hopes to work in restoration or wildlife management after he earns his master’s degree next summer. “This class gives us a background in restoration and shows us how it works in the real world.”

Rebecca Brnot, a junior from Antioch double majoring in biology and environmental studies, said the work will benefit wildlife and people, too, by reducing the potential for flooding and improving campus aesthetics.

“It’s good to promote restoration ideas around the campus for other students and the community to see,” Brnot said. “I also liked getting an introduction to the kinds of work you’d be doing if you go into restoration as a career path.”

Jones said a large contingent of students in the course are studying biology and/or environmental studies, which offers a biodiversity and environmental restoration emphasis.

“These are students who want to go on and be restoration ecologists or managers, and I don’t want them to get their degree without getting in the field and seeing what it entails,” Jones said. “The theoretical portion of the class is really important, but it’s also important to understand what restoration looks like on the ground.”

The project along the west side of the East Lagoon included plantings of prairie and wetland grasses and wildflowers that brought out volunteer students, faculty and alumni during Homecoming Week. Bob Brinkmann, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and himself an expert on sustainability, was among those who got their hands dirty, along with members of the Homecoming Committee, which contributed funds to the project.

“Sustainability is a key part of NIU’s vision moving forward, and I was so happy to join students, faculty, staff and alumni in helping to restore a piece of our campus,” Brinkmann said. “It is clear from President Lisa Freeman’s vision around the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability that this type of project is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to making our campus more sustainable for generations to come.”

Jones’ students continue to gather data and monitor their projects. The professor plans to offer the class every other fall, so future students can measure the success of past projects or pick up where other students left off to start new restorations.

Creek Work: Samantha DeDina (bright green hat), Courtney Gallaher and Melissa Burlingame work along the creek in May.

The student efforts near the lagoon complemented improvements made this past spring under the direction of Melissa Burlingame, assistant director for the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, and NIU Geography Professor Courtney Gallaher.

Gallaher’s Environmental Management class (Geog 453) regularly provides students with hands-on training on campus. And Burlingame suggested a shoreline stabilization project along the creek that intersects Castle Drive and feeds into the East Lagoon.

While students planned the project back in 2019, the actual fieldwork was postponed due to the pandemic. It was picked up with help from the Student Association and biology and environmental studies alumna Samantha DeDina, ecological restoration superintendent for ENCAP, Inc., a DeKalb-based environmental consulting and planning firm.

Along with Gallaher, Burlingame and several volunteers, DeDina provided her time and energy, while ENCAP supplied a mini-excavator for the work. The creek shoreline was graded, stabilized and replanted with native species in May.

“Projects like this really allow the campus to become a living classroom for the types of applications the students are studying,” DeDina said. The 2012 NIU graduate also contributed her time and expertise to this fall’s lagoon work and is a guest speaker in Jones’ class this semester.

“Although classwork lays a valuable foundation regarding restoration ecology and similar ventures, field experience is critical to gather what post-graduation opportunities may look like,” DeDina said.

Meanwhile, in addition to her teaching, Gallaher has stepped into a new role this semester as NIU sustainability coordinator. In that role, she will be involved in collaboratively outlining NIU sustainability goals across campus. The picturesque East Lagoon has room for more shoreline improvement, so it’s likely to figure into those plans.

“Working together on restoring the shoreline gets people invested in our campus, and makes it feel like the lagoon belongs to everyone,” Gallaher said.