Class improves environment through bioswale project

In just one block, Cornell College Environmental Biology students have created a plan to reduce the campus’s impact on the environment.

Cornell's bioswale helps filter rain water running down the hill. Students plan to expand upon what's currently built behind Russell Science Center.
Cornell’s bioswale helps filter rainwater running down the hill. Students plan to expand upon what’s currently built behind Russell Science Center.

The class spent Block 7 studying a bioswale, located on the west side of Russell Science Center. 

“A bioswale is mimicking a natural habitat to filter out groundwater,” said Associate Professor of Biology Tammy Mildenstein, who taught the online course. “The whole goal of bioswales is to retain and hold groundwater when it rains and not just have water run off the hill. It also serves the role of filtering fertilizer and herbicides out of the water before it goes into the drainage system that leads to the streams that lead to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The James Boyer Bioswale was built behind the new Russell Science Center when the building was constructed thanks to a donation from Gilda Vinzulis Boyer ’84 and Barry Boyer ’84, in honor of Barry’s father and his lifelong passion for making the world a better place, one tree at a time. 

The class worked each day of the block to build a plan to expand upon the bioswale that is already there.

“This project was unlike anything I’ve ever done in science before and it was quite exciting, to say the least,” said rising senior Isaiah Zavala, a biology major from Las Vegas, Nevada. “It was interesting seeing how most, if not all, of the participants had never heard of or seen a bioswale before and came together for the well-being of the community, environment, and species that inhabit the area.”

The students divided up the project into topics ranging from figuring out how to increase community support for the project to understanding plant, amphibian, and insect life they hope to attract to create a healthy bioswale ecosystem. Students were graded on creating a realistic five-year plan to ensure the project moves forward.

“I think the block plan was really helpful,” Mildenstein said. “We had to go from students never having heard of a bioswale to having a very concrete binder plan by the end. I think if we were just meeting a couple of days a week on the semester plan, it would have been really hard to get the students thinking about how this needs to come together.” 

Outside of class hours, students spent time observing the area, visiting other local bioswales, and researching every aspect of the project. Students say they were surprised at how their work depended on one another.

“Our reliance on others within our class was intense,” said rising junior Parker Creech, an environmental studies major from Newton, Iowa. “My conclusions on amphibians, for example, hinged on the drainage information obtained by the maintenance group, whose conclusion hinged on the plant group’s decisions on what flora to have present.”

The student teams also worked with important stakeholders such as the Cornell Office of Facility Services, the Environmental Club, professors in other departments, and more. 

“It was really an exercise in learning about biodiversity and the role biodiversity plays in creating sustainable ecosystems or sustainable campuses,” Mildenstein said. “Unless we created a space students would like, we realized that a few years down the road it might get mowed over unless there was someone standing up for the bioswale and making sure it was taken care of.”

Environmental biology is a required course for the environmental studies majors, and many other non-biology majors enjoy taking this course. Mildenstein said from economics to art majors, everyone found their niche in the project. Students learned some valuable skills they’ll take with them well after the class is over.

“I have learned many important lessons from being a student at Cornell, but specifically, in the Environmental Biology class, I learned that there are so many eco-friendly and sustainable processes already created,” said Grace Kann, a rising sophomore majoring in environmental studies and anthropology and sociology from Dubuque, Iowa. “We just have to take the time to research, build, and sustain them. If we implemented more structures like bioswales, our water would be much cleaner, and the environments around us would thrive.” 

At the end of the class, Mildenstein said students told her they couldn’t wait to come back after they’ve graduated to visit the bioswale and know they helped create it.

“I love Cornell, and it brings me pride and joy to be able to contribute back,” Creech said. “But ultimately, it showed that a class of mostly non-bio majors have the capability to make a difference. The class was a lower level and many only took it for a science credit, yet we all came together to create something important. This kind of thing can happen anywhere, ordinary people coming together to tackle threats to our environment. Above all, it gives me hope for the future of our planet.”