Gateway Middle School seventh-grade teacher Mike Dick holds his 2021 Outstanding Conservation Educator award from the Lucas Soil and Water Conservation District for his efforts in helping the monarch butterfly population. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER
BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Mike Dick, a seventh-grade teacher at Gateway Middle School, was named the 2021 Outstanding Conservation Educator by the Lucas Soil and Water Conservation District (Lucas SWCD) for his efforts in helping the monarch butterfly population.
He and his students participated in tagging and releasing monarch butterflies through a partnership with the Toledo Zoo. To take it one step further, he and his students, along with the help of Maumee Garden Club, Toledo Zoo, Lucas SWCD and the teachers at Gateway, engaged in a problem-based learning project to install a 10,000-square-foot urban prairie on the school grounds.
While Dick was recently given the award, it’s a project that started six years ago.
“The Toledo Zoo raises monarch butterflies and participates in Monarch Watch’s tag and release program,” he said. “My students and I did a little monarch research and found out about how their numbers were falling dramatically.”
A few zoo educators brought several butterflies to Gateway for his students to tag and release.
“That’s when we realized that we had no milkweed – or anything else – here on Gateway’s campus for the butterflies to eat,” Dick explained.
Mitch Magdich, Toledo Zoo’s curator of education, had written a grant for prairie installation, so Gateway collaborated with him to put a prairie at Gateway in 2016. Located across the parking lot and behind the bus garage, it’s been a perfect location because it’s easily accessible but out of the way of daily traffic.
“We have a wide variety of birds, butterflies and bugs in that little space, and all kinds of unique plants,” Dick said.
After that, Dick worked with Amy Boros to install a prairie at Hull Prairie Elementary in Perrysburg and with Kristy DiSalle to start one at Dorr Elementary in Springfield Township.
“The four of us – me, Amy, Kristy and Mitch – were the original members of the Project Prairie steering committee. Since then, we have added several schools and members and now have 19 buildings with a total of about 7.5 acres of prairie,” Dick said.
Throughout the process, Lucas SWCD and the Toledo Zoo have been amazing partners, he said. Lucas SWCD education coordinator Jamie Kochen-sparger comes to Gateway each year to show students how to separate milkweed seeds from their pods to scatter them on the prairie and talks about the importance of milkweed to the monarch population. Last year, student teacher Ethan Jessing collaborated with Kochensparger to do a virtual program in which seventh-graders explored a river biome using Lucas SWCD materials.
From the zoo, Magdich and education coordinator Alex Burris teamed up with Dick to write standards-based lessons for grades 1-8, making it easier for teachers to use their prairies as outdoor classrooms and lab spaces.
“For example, in seventh grade, we analyze biotic and abiotic resources, compare leaf pigments of prairie leaves with tree leaves with chromatography, and identify prairie species using physical characteristics,” Dick said. “On a larger scale, all 19 partnering schools do a Prairie Bioblitz during the last week of September, where we take pictures of all the living things that we can find and upload it to an app called iNaturalist. This is always a rewarding experience!
“I think our little prairie spaces are providing meaningful, hands-on experiences that are truly unique. Kids today are actively looking for ways to make a difference. Our prairies not only make them aware of the environment, but also show the kids what role they can play in protecting and conserving our natural resources.”
In addition to Dick’s award, Ethan Jessing received the 2021 Out-standing Student Teacher Award. After completing his student teaching in seventh-grade science at Gateway, he accepted a job this school year as fifth- and sixth-grade STEM teacher at Hull Prairie Intermediate in Perrys-burg.
During a November 3 meeting, Lucas SWCD members also congratulated Metroparks Toledo, which was named 2021 Outstanding Cooperator of the Year for partnering with Lucas SWCD and Toledo Spirits this past summer to plant and harvest heritage red corn for whiskey production. In May, the seeds were planted on 2.5 acres at the Blue Creek Conservation Area in Whitehouse. The corn was dried by the Blue Creek Seed Production Team and will be ground at Grand Rapids Mill before the corn goes to a whiskey distillery. Recently at Blue Creek, Metroparks Toledo also installed 4,000 feet of two-stage ditch on Mosquito Creek and rehabilitated the wetlands in partnership with The University of Toledo.