The hands-on development of beneficial pollinator habitat has agricultural students in a western Iowa school district literally getting their hands dirty in an innovative, active outdoor learning environment.

Tri-Center (Neola) has partnered with the Pottawattamie County Conservation Department, Pottawattamie County Soil and Water District, and the local Pheasants Forever chapter to repurpose portions of the rural school grounds specifically for pollinators.

Students spent the better part of a year planning and planting an orchard and native trees to native grasses, flowers and a butterfly garden, with the end goal of creating a sustainable and educational pollinator habitat.

Those involved say it has been a thrilling project.

“This is the epitome of hands-on learning,” said Rene Stroud, Pottawattamie County naturalist. “Students get their hands dirty. This is active, outdoor learning with a clear goal that keeps them engaged and allows for learning in the moment that cannot be done indoors.

“In addition, students learn about our native plants and pollinators and the importance of biodiversity.”

T-C Ag Instructor Haley Carlson agrees. She said the project gives high school students the opportunity to learn more about native plants and root systems.

“It also discusses pollinators – butterflies and bees – and the benefits they have on our ecosystem/environment,” Carlson said. “We talk about water conservation (too). My favorite part is that students get to be hands-on in the development of this project.”

Trees for kids

Pottawattamie County Conservation’s education department strives to help young people understand connections to an ecosystem, while aiding schools in developing native outdoor spaces students can access daily.

“Healthy, biologically diverse areas have been shown to have a positive impact on a person’s well-being,” Stroud explained. “Research shows that students who have access to outdoor learning spaces are more creative and have better problem-solving skills, get better test scores, have higher grade point averages, have decreased behavioral problems, and have reduced symptoms of ADHD.”

The pollinator project kicked off in summer 2022 after securing a Trees for Kids grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Fruit trees were planted first to complement the school’s working farm and then several native trees.

Next came the planting of native grasses on a hill difficult to mow due to the grade, and then native plugs, with the support of the local pollinator group PATH (Pollinator Alliance of the Heartland).

“This area can be used for educational purposes as well,” said Stroud. “It has many local forbs and grasses planted, such as Wild Petunia, Prairie Spiderwort, Wild Strawberry, and June Grass.”

Everyone involved

Carlson said a diverse group of students has been involved in the pollinator plantings. “Really it’s any and all hands on deck,” she said. “I’ve had FFA members helping, horticulture students and any other agriculture student available during the time of our plantings.

“Students are helping plant and water…as the plants on the hill develop, students will take part in educational lessons and labs.”

In addition to the educational component, Carlson sees the benefits to wildlife and pollinators.

“I like the aspect of potentially adding a beehive in the future, and encouraging new/different students to join the agriculture program with their interest in conservation,” she said.

Stroud has seen groups of 15-40 students turn out on planting dates. Harris Bruck, freshman, and Keith Marsh, junior, are FFA members who have participated and enjoyed the hands-on aspects of the program.

“There has been a lot of work that has gone into developing the project,” said Bruck. “I’ve learned about how delicate ecosystems can be and how we need to restore natural grasses.”

Marsh added, “It’s important to see what effect we can have on ecosystems and butterflies. This project will provide more environments for pollinators that will help our agriculture fields.”

Important project

T-C Superintendent of Schools Dr. Angela Huseman said when approached about the partnership, she jumped at the chance to be involved.

“Showing students all the steps that are needed to establish a pollinator field not only helps the environment but also shows the students how to work through a process, how to reach out to organizations that can be helpful with knowledge and resources,” Huseman said. 

Carlson said it will take time to develop each pollinator area, but it will be exciting to watch it grow. “Once developed we will have a nice space to increase pollinators in our area,” she said.

Stroud added that pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, but native pollinator habitat has dwindled since Iowa was settled. The tall grass prairie that provided a biologically diverse habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, today less than 1% remains.

“Although we can never replace the original tall grass prairie that has been lost, every little piece of non-native lawn we convert to native plants adds resources for native pollinators and other wildlife back into the ecosystem, increasing biodiversity and the overall health of our state.”