Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, April 30, 1999  |  Number 9
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

The Talk of the Lab

The prairie is back

"There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie, there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.

In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon. And close to it sat Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie, eating their breakfasts."

—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie

In the 1870’s, when Laura Ingalls Wilder was traveling by covered wagon across Kansas, northern Illinois was also covered with tallgrass prairie. But by the 1970s, when Fermilab arrived on the scene, a century of sodbusting agriculture and suburban development had shrunk the native grasslands to a few pitiful scraps along old railroad lines and in churchyard corners. The prairie was all but extinct, and ecologists were writing its epitaph.

They were premature. Today, twenty-five years of nurturing have brought large tracts of prairie back to life on Fermilab’s site, and now prairies are popping up all over the Midwest. In our own neighborhood, schools, civic organizations, park districts and forest preserves are building and restoring prairies, often with a little help from Fermilab. The Laboratory’s thriving prairie and efficient harvesting methods yield all the prairie seed Fermilab can use, with enough left over to share with prairie-minded neighbors—like the kids at Johnson School, just across the Laboratory’s back fence.

Grants from the village of Warrenville, the Northern Illinois Wetland Conservation Foundation and others have funded an environmental restoration project just getting under way in the Summerlakes subdivision on Fermilab’s eastern boundary. As part of the project, fourth and fifth graders at Johnson School are responsible for restoring native prairie plants. When Fermilab’s Bob Lootens heard about the project, he offered seed from Fermilab to help jump-start the effort.

Fermilab provides seed for more than 50 school projects. The Fermilab prairie mix contains seeds of big bluestem and Indian grass, as well as what Lootens calls "a pot pourri" of about a dozen forbs, or broad-leaved (not grass) prairie plants. As Lootens travels around the countryside, he sees more and more patches of prairie with a familiar look. It’s nice, he says, to see the neighbors getting into the prairie business.

Big Brother

Andrew Green is an Iowa State grad student, a DZero collaborator, member of the Fermilab Graduate Student Association—and a new big brother. He volunteered in November to the Big Brothers and Sisters of Kane and Kendall Counties, and, after extensive screening, Green finally met his little brother a few weeks ago. The third grader from nearby Aurora has "a situation that’s not so different from the way I grew up," Green said. "They try to match up big and little brothers with compatible backgrounds."

Big brothers make a commitment to spend a few hours every week for a year with their little brothers. Green plans to bring his to Fermilab for a fishing trip, and with summer coming he envisions spending extra time with his new sibling.

"He’s enthusiastic, and I’m big-time enthusiastic," Green said.

Principal for a Day

"We think we lead a harried existence at Fermilab," said hard-working engineer-architect Vic Kuchler. "You should see what it’s like to be an elementary school principal."

Kuchler should know. He spent April 20 as Principal for a Day at Nightingale Elementary School, at 5250 South Rockwell on Chicago’s South Side. He came away a little dazed at the exuberance of the kids, impressed with the quality of the education they are getting, and in awe of the real principal, John Arnieri.

"As soon as we came out of his private office, people were all over him," Kuchler said. "He was calm at all times. ‘Okay, tell Mrs. Sanchez to get an interpreter and I’ll call the mom. That’s a very nice fish that you made. I’ll put it on my desk…’ It never stopped."

Kuchler spent time with first graders (who were making clay fish for their fish unit) but he spent much of his day with sixth, seventh and eighth-graders in their science classes. The school uses an innovative method of computer-based "technology stations" to teach science.

"At one station, you make a movie. Another is a radio show. One station is about electricity, another one teaches structural technology—beams and things. There’s one for aerodynamics, and at one you build a rocket. The kids work in groups, spending four weeks at each station, starting in sixth grade. It takes three years to get through all the stations. The kids design and build projects, using computers as tools to help them solve problems."

The enthusiasm of the teachers and the determination of the principal gave Kuchler a good feeling about Nightingale, where about 90 percent of the students are Hispanic. Many speak little English when they start school. Teachers estimate that it takes about three years for most students to grow fluent in English.

One purpose of Kuchler’s visit was to let the kids know the kinds of opportunities that are available to them at places like national laboratories—if they stick with school. And Nightingale sounds like good preparation. What, after all, is Fermilab but one of the world’s grandest and most glorious technology stations?

—Judy Jackson

last modified 4/30/1999   email Fermilab