Many who drive past Culver’s Fleet Field remember watching Cessnas perform “touch-and-goes” during flight training. Now that Culver Summer Schools & Camps has shifted its aviation program to utilizing advanced ground simulators with training flights out of the Starke County Airport, a new type of winged phenomena is developing at the former airfield.
Part of the runway has been replaced by a 4.5 acre “pollinator prairie.” The winged phenomena are pollinator species – insects and birds that are critical to pollinating much of our food supply and foundational for a healthy ecosystem.
Culver’s prairie got its start in 2008 when biology instructor Kris Little ’75 created a 1.5 acre prairie on the north side of State Road 10, just north of the old runway. In 2015, as part of his Service Leadership Project, Reilly Combs ’16, working with Culver’s Sustainability Director Chris Kline ’82, more than doubled the prairie’s size by adding three additional acres on the south side of the highway. And, as anyone walking or driving by the area can now attest, the place is blooming.
“This project revolved around the unfortunate reality that the monarch butterflies and bees are on a devastating decline. In the next few years, this prairie will provide a wonderful habitat for monarchs and bees to be able to thrive in and to help them to regain their populations back,” Combs said.
As the restored and expanded prairie takes root, other opportunities arise for project-based learning. A great example is the establishment of an apiary (bee hive) on the prairie’s perimeter. Culver’s bee hive got its start through another Service Learning Project by Michael Johnston ’16. In its first year of operation the bees produced more than 70 pounds of honey, much of which was sold through Culver’s own Rubin Café. The first year’s success led to the formation of a Bee Club under the direction of Jaqueline Oeschger ’18, who has enlisted 10 other students with high hopes for expanding this effort.
A second, enduring project-based learning opportunity revolves around the close study of the biological details of the prairie. This past spring Dr. Rebecca Sam, a new science teacher at Culver with a doctorate in entomology, described her interest in biodiversity to Kline. Together they utilized funding from a Surdna Foundation grant to establish a formal biodiversity experiment utilizing the prairie habitat. With the grant, various traps have been installed in the field to collect insects. The captured insects will be preserved in a formal collection and utilized across the curriculum.
Sustainability intern Madi Berman ’15 said that she and the two other interns, Julia Smith ’17 and Regina Padilla ’15, “are currently in the process of collecting bugs to see what species the prairie has been attracting.” The traps include, “tents for flying insects, buried bucket traps with bait for crawling insects and scavengers.” She added they’re hoping to, “go out at night and collect a sample of the bugs using a black light and a sheet.”
While the pollinator prairie will take three to five years to become fully established, the data collection has already begun. This summer sustainability interns have been hard at work mapping the prairie with orange flags every five meters which allows for an effective and focused study of the area, Kline explained.
Both Kline and Sam foresee the use of the prairie as an active lab for students and campers. Whether it’s biology and environmental science courses during the academic school year or the Woodcraft nature classes during the summer, all will be encouraged to partake in investigating the prairie’s rich and growing wildlife.
By incorporating the efforts and minds of both the summer camp and boarding school communities, the prairie truly embodies the One Culver approach, all in a pursuit to better the environment both occupy.
If you are interested in a tour of the prairie, please contact Chris Kline or Rebecca Sam, but please do not give yourself a “self-guided” tour. Due to the ongoing research, number of traps and other equipment deployed, self-tours or picking your own wildflowers are prohibited.
Editor’s Note: Chris Kline wrote the background details for this story.