Students promote Lake Huron biodiversity during Charity Island excursion

Au Gres-Sims elementary students team up with Great Lakes scientists to monitor threatened pitcher’s thistle and invasive phragmites plant populations on Charity Island.

Au Gres-Sims Elementary students collect scientific data to monitor populations of both invasive phragmites (left) and federally threatened pitcher’s thistle plants (right).  Photo: Brandon Schroeder | Michigan Sea Grant.
Au Gres-Sims Elementary students collect scientific data to monitor populations of both invasive phragmites (left) and federally threatened pitcher’s thistle plants (right). Photo: Brandon Schroeder | Michigan Sea Grant.

The bow of "Miss Charity Ilse" cut through the waves and waters of Lake Huron, and smiles flashed across the faces of elementary students from Au Gres-Sims School. These fourth graders were on an adventure to Charity Island located in Saginaw Bay. They also were on an important scientific mission, teaming up with Great Lakes scientists from Michigan State University Extension (MSUE), Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI), Michigan Sea Grant, Huron Pines, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and others in an effort to help promote Lake Huron biodiversity conservation on the island.

Toting clipboards and data sheets, identification charts and global positioning system units these young scientists were ready to collect data for their research project. Local businesses of Charity Island Excursions and Brown’s Landing charter services (operator of Miss Charity Isle) contributed in getting students out to the island for their study. Once there, students were charged with counting, mapping and monitoring populations of the federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle plant known to inhabit the sandy dune areas of the island’s coastline. They also collected data on phragmites, an invasive plant species encroaching upon and threatening this very same coastal habitat. Of course, students also were prepared for a little fun enjoying and exploring both natural and historical aspects of island -- getting their feet wet, blowing milkweed seeds and exploring the historic lighthouse.

Supported by the Sea Grant Center for Great Lakes Literacy and the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative network, this opportunity connects schools and students with Great Lakes scientists and community partners of the Charity Islands invasive phragmites project led by Huron Pines. This partnership is aimed at managing and removing invasive species, namely phragmites, currently threatening biodiversity on this island. Huron Pines AmeriCorps members helped students to evaluate densities of the plants currently found on the island by counting plant stems in a measured area. The school hopes to collect and monitor this same information annually, giving them purpose to return to the island in future years.

Led by MNFI plant scientist, Phyllis Higman, and Michigan Sea Grant, students also searched for the federally threatened pitcher’s thistle plants. Students counted and aged, mapped and recorded each plant they found – documenting more than 200 plants during their trip.  Students coordinated their study with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which both manages the majority of Charity Island as part of the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Refuge and has primary authority over pitcher’s thistle, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Students were trained to take proper precautions to prevent unnecessary harm while conducting their study and also were given permission to help collect some seeds from adult plants. These seeds will be cultivated by USFWS in support of future restoration efforts on the island.

This day also was an exercise in teamwork, communication and taking on the responsibility to get a project done with professionalism – life skills that will serve these youth long beyond the project. Back in school after collecting their data, the learning will continue as students tabulate and summarize their findings, which will then be shared with their many community research partners.

Supporting place-based education, the NE MI GLSI supports opportunities to engage students, through their school learning, in environmental stewardship projects that make a difference. For students, it’s a great way to apply science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) learning in real-world practice; as well as great opportunity to experience science careers first-hand by working in these coastal habitats alongside Great Lakes scientists. In trade, the data that these students collect and summarize are meaningful and valuable to the scientists supporting students in this learning opportunity.

Visit to learn about more environmental stewardship projects of students from schools across northeast Michigan. Learn more about place-based stewardship education supported by the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative network and partnership across Michigan online:

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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