Janet Ellsworth’s fourth-grade science students get enthusiastic about learning during their field trips to the nearby wetlands. So much so that one Mansfield City School student, after examining microscopic creatures pulled from the muddy waters, told her teacher: “I never thought I wanted to go to college. I want to go to college now.”
This fall, the opportunity for more children to take part in hands-on learning at the north-central Ohio wetlands will expand because of a unique partnership between Ashland University and the Crawford/Richland County Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. The council, made up of 3,500 members in two counties, is raising funds to build an Environmental Studies Center at the wetlands site, a project that has lain dormant on Ashland University’s drawing boards for several years.
The lab will include microscopes and other equipment so students can get close-up looks at the creatures and plants of the wetlands and learn more about the connections between that watershed and the far-flung areas it serves, says Dr. Patricia Saunders, director of Ashland University’s Environmental Science program. “Really what the building is helping us do is open up access,” she says.
With only a boardwalk now jutting out into the Black Fork Wetlands, and no facilities available for study on-site, the area currently offers limited opportunity for students because federal regulations prohibit removing plants and animals from protected wetland areas. But students can get eyeball-to-eyeball views of wetlands life after the central labor council raises the $100,000 needed for the $134,000 project.
“There is a lot of benefit to what is popularly called ‘experiential learning,’” Saunders says. “Learning about the natural history of the site teaches students how it impacts where they live.”
Tucked halfway between Columbus and Cleveland, the 298-acre wetlands provide habitat for fish, wildlife and a variety of plants and are vital for holding and slowly releasing flood waters and snow melt, says John Hildreth, district administration of the Richland County Soil and Water Resources office. “I see this endeavor by the university as a science-based education not only for students but for the general public to better understand the function and respect we must have for wetlands.”
At the university level, the research “can validate and perhaps create new information of how important wetlands are to better our society," says Hildreth. “Urban sprawl has destroyed hundreds of acres of wetlands. The cost of rebuilding communities that have been damaged by flooding is a countrywide problem. Wetlands allow flood water to disperse and reduce the velocity of water movement that destroys communities. By understanding the function of wetlands, we can reduce community damage by a large percent.”
Students at all levels will not be the only ones to benefit from the new science classroom. Bird watching groups, summer campers and other members of the community also will have greater access to the wetlands with this new addition, says Ashland University Assistant Director of Development/Academics Bill Mellick.
Ron Davis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Crawford/Richland labor council, is thrilled about this first-ever partnership with the university and is busy reaching out to local unions, lawmakers and area businesses to raise the funding. He’s planning several fundraising dinners and other events to bring in the money needed to complete the project in September or October and describes with gusto the hip boots, chest waders and other gear the labor council will help purchase.
Some people are amazed at the partnership, Davis says, because Ashland University tends toward the politically conservative.
But this isn’t the U.S. Congress.
Summing up the partnership in a way that puts congressional partisan wrangling to shame, Mellick says: “This is about benefiting students and about benefiting the community and any time you can put the two together, it’s a great thing.”
If you or your local union want to contribute, send a check payable to Ashland University, with the memo line: Black Fork Wetlands/AFL-CIO, and mail to: AFL-CIO Crawford/Richland County Central Labor Council, P.O. Box 1234, Mansfield, OH 44901.