College & high school environmental students teamed up to help Mill Creek Alliance

On the morning of October 5, 2023, Cincinnati State and Hughes STEM High School Zoo Academy students worked together to help rejuvenate the Freedom Grove in the Mill Creek Watershed as a natural and community asset.

The college students were Cincinnati State Environmental Engineering Technology (EVT) students from the Environmental Club and the EVT 105 class, Environmental Sampling, led by Dr. Ann Gunkel. They were joined by Hughes Zoo Academy CCP (College Credit Plus) students in the EVS 13O class, Environmental Science: Ecology and Ecosystems, led by Tracy Greeley Howard.

The students worked alongside other watershed stewards from the Mill Creek Alliance (MCA), including Johnny Dwyer, MCA Education Director and Outreach Manager.

The Freedom Grove project started in 2005 when Mill Creek Alliance planted trees in honor of the place where escaping slaves would exit Mill Creek and start their trip northward. The original project partners included Mill Creek Alliance, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Paul Hemmer, Sand Run Nursery, and the City of Cincinnati. However, over the years, the Freedom Grove became overrun with non-native invasive plant species that compete with the fruit-bearing trees.

During their workday, the high school and college students helped MCA rejuvenate Freedom Grove as a public fruit orchard and bike path by clearing overhanging branches, placing mulch, and creating tree rings around the bases of the native fruit trees. The students also removed invasive plant species including Johnson grass, porcelain berry vines, Siberian Elm saplings, and honeysuckle bush.

Two students clearing debris during Oct. 2023 workday for Mill Creek Alliance

This service learning project highlighted the partnership between Hughes STEM High School’s Zoo Academy with Cincinnati State’s EVT program and the College Credit Plus program.

“The high school students are earning college credits while also learning about environmental technology opportunities at Cincinnati State,” Dr. Gunkel said.

“Working alongside community partners such as Mill Creek Alliance, the high school and college students have the opportunity to learn together and gain valuable experience,” said Tracy Howard, faculty member at the Zoo Academy.

“It’s great to see this collaboration and dedication to education and the environment.”

The Cincinnati Zoo Academy has been a part of Cincinnati Public Schools since 1975, but in 2008 it became a Career Technical Program with articulation agreements with Cincinnati State and UC Blue Ash. Students spend their ninth and tenth grade years at Hughes High School. During their eleventh and twelfth grade years they spend part of each day at the Zoo Academy on zoo grounds.

By gaining this on-the-job experience, the high school students also become eligible for the Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate of Completion offered by the Ohio Department of Education, and can accelerate steps toward a career in environmental engineering technology or environmental science.