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A Sand Coulee Classroom

Test scores aren't the only way students can measure their progress. In the case of a trout stream and a prairie remnant in Hastings, kids can see their knowledge swimming and blooming.

For the past four years, Hastings High School biology teacher Joe Beattie and his classes have worked with the Friends of the Mississippi River on a long-term project to restore parts of a dry sand-gravel prairie. Know locally as the sand coulee, this mix of public and private land in Dakota County includes the 77-acre Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area. It is home to 13 rare species, including plants such as James' polanisia (Polanisia jamesii) and narrow-leaved pinweed (Lechea tenuifolia), which is known to occur in only one other place in the state, and wildlife such as the gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) and blue racer (Coluber constrictor).

The students have conducted prairie restoration activities on two acres, planting native grasses and wildflowers and studying bur oaks. In the Vermillion River, the class collected macroinvertebrates, such as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies, to gauge the biological health of the river. The river is home to trophy-sized brown trout, but it is on the state's list of impaired waters for turbidity. Students also assisted in a DNR electrofishing trout survey and pulled thousands of pounds of trash from the river and other local streams.

Beattie and his students noticed poor water quality in a storm-water pond constructed to drain a Hastings residential development.

"The more we looked at the pond, the more concerned we got," Beattie said. "With my waders on, I'd slide across it like I had skis on. Slimy, gooey stuff."

Over the past three years, Beattie's students have collected native plant seeds and replanted them by the pond on the city's portion of the sand coulee. The planting, which gradually progresses from upland prairie species to wetland species by the pond, is beginning to improve the pond's water quality, although it will take years to deliver statistically valid results.

"It doesn't have that slick, mucky bottom like it used to," says Beattie.

In fall 2010, Beattie and his students will continue the restoration efforts by planting vegetation reared from seed collected by the fall 2009 class.

Dave Dempsey, freelance writer

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