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  • Teaching Ecological Restoration to Strangers and Friends:An Adult Education Program in Northeastern Illinois
  • Thomas B. Simpson (bio)

The Research Field Station of McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD), located about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, launched the Ecological Restoration Certificate Program (ERCP) in the fall of 2007 to train practitioners and make new friends for restoration. The ERCP is an experiment in teaching restoration. It takes the mission of training practitioners seriously, but at the same time, reaches out to people as yet uninvolved, based on the idea that doing both education and outreach allows both to be done better. A more diverse group teaches itself tolerance, raises more interesting questions, explores ideas in greater depth, and spreads the contagion of enthusiasm. A broader audience and economies of scale allow support for a higher-quality program with prospects for a long and productive life. And, as important as any of these, the ERCP engages ideas about land, people, and history that are often left out of ecology textbooks in general, and all too many papers and books about restoration ecology.

In the early 1990s, I had the good fortune to work with the education program of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, at the time when we were putting the Naturalist Certificate Program (NCP) together—adult continuing-education courses centered on the study of natural history. We used a hub-and-spokes concept: the hub was a core of integrative ecology classes, around which were arranged a wide variety of courses on plants, animals, nature education, nature writing, and more. As core instructor, my job was to both teach ecology and direct students to the "spoke" classes. The public responded in large numbers, and the program continues to this day.

The hub-and-spokes organization not only helped students understand ecology and natural history, it encouraged them to take further classes. Time and again in my private conversations with students, they hesitated to take a particular class because they felt "everyone else in the class [End Page 141] will know so much more than I do." All of us go out of our way to avoid potentially embarrassing situations, and a common curriculum helped assure prospective students that they were all on the same journey. People who came to the program through a "spoke" class were directed back to the core by the organization of the program, but even more importantly by their interaction with enthusiastic students. Also, people came to the program with a highly fragmented view of nature, in both what it was made of and how it functioned, so a strong sense of wholeness and integration needed to be designed into the program.

After coming to the Field Station and MCCD in 2003, we tried several three-day ecological restoration retreats and a one-day workshop on oak savanna restoration in 2006. Participant reviews were complimentary but registration was marginal. We were able to run two of the retreats but had to cancel another. The one-day workshop drew a nice audience, but the topic was much too large to do it justice in seven hours. In late 2006, I set about designing a program that would encompass a much larger amount of information and ideas than we could contain in either a three-day or one-day event, yet be easily accessible to the public. The resulting Ecological Restoration Certificate Program followed the general hub-and-spokes organization of the NCP.

To make the program easier to enter, we packaged the "courses" as one-day, seven-hour workshops, meaning that a prospective participant needed to commit to only one workshop and one drive to Glacial Park to get a sample of the quality and content of the program. Ten of these seven-hour workshops are required for those pursuing a certificate: two ecology workshops and one land-use history workshop form the integrative core of the program, and other required workshops include the history of ecological restoration; interpreting ecological restoration to the public; the identification and ecology of woody plants, geology, and soils; and three methods workshops: prescribed fire, controlling invasive plants, and reintroduction of native plants. In addition to these ten workshops, participants must take...


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