KOKOMO, Ind. — What better place to learn about wetland conservation, sand dune formation, bogs, birds, and forests, than one of the most ecologically diverse environments in the country?
That’s especially true when it’s practically in your own back yard.
A group of nine Indiana University Kokomo students spent a week exploring the 15,000 acres that make up the Indiana Dunes National Park, and the Indiana Dunes State Park, as part of classes in U.S. geology field experience and special topics in biology. They hiked a trail through Miller Woods, studying oak savanna ecology and research, learned about current scientific research projects at the Indiana Dunes, saw area wildlife, and climbed the 125-foot Mount Baldy sand dune, among other activities.
Grace Lefler, a biological and physical sciences major, said the experience reminded her about appreciating her surroundings.
“Going to the Indiana Dunes helped me realize I need to stop and look at the small things,” she said. “I’d be walking along a path, and there would be a bird here, or a frog there, or an interesting bug. You pass so many things you don’t even think about. This made me appreciate nature and slow down a bit to notice it.”
She also enjoyed gaining historical background on the state and national parks.
“We learned how glaciers formed the land masses, and the impact industry had,” she added. “It’s important to know that history and learn about the balance between nature and history in Indiana.”
Brittany Lucas, a new media, art, and technology major, is excited to paint the Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species that lives in the dunes area. Learning about it made her realize the importance of protecting the environment.
“If we know more about a place like this, we feel more motivated to help protect it, because we know why it’s important for different species,” she said. “We need to preserve it so future generations can see it.”
Leda Casey, senior lecturer in geology, and Lina Rifai, associate professor of vertebrate biology, previously led trips to Yellowstone National Park for the classes, but chose a more local location, to make it accessible to more students — and to help them appreciate what’s available in their own state.
“The Indiana Dunes is an amazing place, and lots of students have never been there,” said Casey. “We focused on stewardship of public land. They came to the park armed with geology and biology, to use the park to dive into the questions like, ‘Why is this land valuable?’ ‘Who is protecting them?’ And ‘Why should be protect them?’”
As an informatics major, Michael LaFleur was interested in learning how the national parks service and other stakeholders manage data. He saw that in action while meeting with representatives of the Audubon Society of the Great Lakes.
“They walked us through their process, from collection to management, all the way to publishing it on a website for the public, he said. “We walked out in the field with them, they played bird calls, we recorded what we found on paper, and went step-by-step, all the way to publication.”
Patrick Harris was amazed by the diversity of environments and animal species in the parks.
“They have lots of woods, wetlands, bogs, so many things,” he said. “If you know about it, you’re more likely to want to protect the place. It’s a unique habitat. Not many places in the world have dune formations and wetlands.”
The Indiana Dunes class was funded through the Kokomo Experience and You, the KEY program, which provides students chances to connect with people and participate in real-world experiences.