Program aims to engage students in environmental science


The Third 90 Network combines high school and college students, which gives the younger students a chance to learn more about higher education while being mentored by older students. Courtesy Michigan Colleges Foundation

Earlier this year, as the leaves began to change color and autumn slowly transitioned into winter, a group of 25 students clad in Wellington boots and green-hooded sweatshirts bearing the name Third 90 Network tramped through the great outdoors collecting soil samples, learning about plants and trees, and participating in a research project that could potentially impact alternative energy options of the future.

The students were from Grand Rapids Public Schools’ University Prep Academy and Central High’s School of Health, Science and Technology, and the program is part of a partnership between the two high schools, the Michigan Colleges Foundation and the Wege Foundation. It aims to introduce students from mostly urban areas to careers in environmental science and college opportunities.

Third 90 Network began three years ago with one high school in Detroit and 10 students. It has grown to include seven high schools with approximately 220 students participating at three environmental sites in Detroit, Coldwater and Grand Rapids.

“We were able to formulate a program that is based around environmental science that brings teams of high school students throughout the state together each semester with faculty and college students from our campuses,” said Robert Bartlett, president of MCF. “(Students) actually get outdoors and do science learning in the environment. Each semester they study different topics in environmental science based on the project site. They do experiments, they visit our colleges, they are in the labs working with our professors and college student mentors, and at the end of the semester, they present to their entire school what they learned and the scientific method that they followed.”

Bartlett said besides exposing students to science careers, the program benefits Michigan’s labor market.

“There are many career opportunities emerging in the area of the environment and sustainability,” he said. “Probably more than ever before, this is becoming an area of real relevance to the labor market, especially in Michigan, and this program is giving students an introduction to the wide range of potential careers they could have in fields related to the environment or similar areas of science and technology. The whole STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning area is something that we lack, not just in Michigan but also nationally, in terms of preparing students to succeed in those fields. In a way this gives students a real, fun way to think about science.”

Additionally, the program exposes students to the 14 Michigan colleges and universities that are part of MCF, helping them to locate their best fit. Bartlett said that fit is one of the most important factors in whether a student graduates from the college he or she attends. Graduating, particularly within four years, is also important to Michigan’s labor market, according to Bartlett.

Bartlett also said the program is aimed at teaching kids the correlation between hard work and reward. Current student participants have the opportunity to receive a $250 scholarship as a reward for their commitment to the program.

Calvin College biology professor David Dornbos began participating with Third 90 Network as a faculty mentor this year and is impressed with the opportunity it affords high school and college students.

Third 90 Network
Calvin College biology professor David Dornbos and the students studied a shrub called autumn olive and its impact on the environment. Courtesy Michigan Colleges Foundation

Dornbos designed the experiment students worked on this semester based on previous work he has been engaged in with a shrub called autumn olive. His research involves trying to figure out whether the shrub might be able to spur growth of additional grasses and plants to create biomass that can be used for alternative fuel while saving money on nitrogen fertilization.

He engaged the students in a hypothesis about whether autumn olive might be allelopathic and, therefore, causing harm to other plants, which he suspected might be the case.

The students’ research involved digging up soil samples from beneath the autumn olive plants as well as soil samples in areas of the farm without autumn olive plants to test the nitrogen levels. The students also created germination trials to look for any inhibitions.

“All of a sudden, they are doing science,” Dornbos said. “They are getting a feel for what that is like, and it’s accessible to them.”

Dornbos said it was interesting to discover that once the evidence was collected and analyzed, the experiment confirmed that the autumn olive actually was helping the grasses around it.

“I think it is providing a wonderful opportunity for these students who have interest and some capacity to do science research, and at the high school level connects them with the idea of doing novel research,” Dornbos said. “This is not like a lab that they might get in a class, where you are doing something and you know there is a right answer you are supposed to get. That is not what real research is about. Research is about trying to figure out what you don’t know and nobody knows. That’s a weird idea to these students, and when they start to understand that they really are running investigations on something that is not known, a lot of them kind of like that. … I like it when those light bulbs go off.”

Dornbos said the students also are getting a head start at seeing what aspects of a science career they like and what they do not like. Many students entering college spend their first year or two figuring out those very things, possibly switching majors in the process.

“It’s a matter of the students aligning their personality attributes with what the requirements of a particular role might be,” Dornbos said. “These students are getting an early taste of what that’s like.”

He said that working in teams with college students was impactful for the high school students who realized that in a few years this could be them. The college students gained important leadership and teaching skills from providing mentorship to the younger students.

Besides working in the college labs, the high school students also were provided with tours of the campus and information about what attending college there would be like for them.

“It just gives us an opportunity to go to colleges that we haven’t been to and see how they are, see what we can learn, see the environment the college has, and see how people are friendly and how they work,” said Shawntieasia Johnson, a Third 90 student.

Johnson applied to the program at the suggestion of one of her teachers.

“I think it’s an important opportunity for high school students because you need to get out and show that you are a leader,” she said. “You need to show that you care about the environment and nature, and you always need to learn something new. Why not try new things? Why not try going out, meeting new people and finding out new things? That’s the importance of life, right?”

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