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Dec 28, 2016 04:14PM

Planting a seed: RI teacher helps students protect the earth

By Annie L. Scholl
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Rock Island High School science teacher Nancy Wolber poses for a photo with some of the school's Environmental Action Club members.
Alex Axup joined the Rock Island High School Environmental Action Club because a couple of her friends told her it was fun, and they thought she would enjoy it.

Her friends were so right, Axup says.

"The great thing about the club is that we do so many different activities," says Axup, 18, an RIHS senior who joined the club last year.

The club was founded in 1990 by students who felt there was a need for it. "They wanted to take action on environmental issues," says Nancy Wolber, of Rock Island, the EAC's adviser and a science teacher at the high school.

Currently, the club has 61 members who are in ninth through 12th grades. To join, students complete a membership form, signed by their parents, and pay a $3 annual fee. Students do not receive credit or any other incentive for being part of the club. They get involved, Wolber says, because they want to help with recycling, have fun outdoors and get involved in the community.

"EAC wants to make its members the next environmental stewards in the world," Wolber says.

Mission accomplished for Axup. The two friends who invited her to join the EAC were "passionate environmentalists," and passed that passion — and their love for the club — to Axup.

"The club has impacted me because I have more pride in wanting to make a difference in the environment and community," Axup says.

Through the club's butterfly garden, Axup grew to appreciate "the little things." By tagging butterflies and planting milkweed, she learned that "anyone can make a difference."

It also makes her happy to see her school recycling, Axup says.

Getting recycling started at the high school was one of the reasons the club was founded, Wolber says. Each Monday morning, EAC members take containers around the school and pick up recycling from staff. They then take the containers outside so the recycling company may pick them up.

Wolber expanded the school's recycling efforts when she took over the EAC in 2005. Through the Rock Island County Regional Office of Education's Environmental Education Committee, she also helped to expand recycling throughout the school districts. At RIHS, for example, there are hallway containers for glass, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. They also collect printer cartridges from the district, light ballasts from the maintenance department, CDs and batteries.

The club's efforts also extend into the community. The EAC is involved in Keep Rock Island Beautiful; the Black Hawk State Historic Site; the Quad City Conservation Alliance (QCCA); the Sierra Club; Living Lands and Waters and Nahant Marsh. The club participates in tree plantings and wrappings; the Adopt-a-Highway program; and river cleanups, such as the Xstream Cleanup, a Quad-Cities initiative to clean up waterways.

The club has participated in the Xstream Cleanup since 2005, focusing its efforts on the area behind the marina at Sunset Park. The annual event is one of Axup's favorite club activities.

"It brings a lot of people together around the community to support the same cause," Axup says. "It feels great to be a part of something so important and helpful."

It's Wolber's enthusiasm, Axup says, that makes her and other club members want to do more. "The way she talks to us with her go-getter attitude makes us feel like we can do anything we set our minds to," Axup says.

She calls Wolber a "truly amazing woman" who helps people with "anything and everything."

"She goes out of her way to make sure everyone that wants to be included is included. She helps students make new friends and try new things to broaden their horizons. She is also very generous, especially with her time. If you need something done and done well, you put Mrs. Wolber on the job."

Through the years, Wolber has received a variety of awards for her efforts, including Rock Island Argus Master Teacher (2011); Rock Island Citizen of the Year in Education (2013); and the Rock Island County Soil and Water Conservation District's Conservation Teacher of the Year (2014). In 2015, Wolber was named Amazing Teacher by EcoTeach.

Wolber says she's humbled by the honors.

"I didn't set out to win any awards," she says. Instead, she was inspired "to make a difference in how my students view the world around them."

Since 2006, Wolber has been taking students to Costa Rica, which is attractive for its many ecosystems and biodiversity, she says. Club members raise money for the trip through a variety of fundraising activities — from selling coffee and tea to running coat checks at school events.

The trip includes patrolling beaches in search of nesting or hatching sea turtles to help with turtle conservation efforts.

"Typically, they do not want to leave Costa Rica," Wolber says of the students. "They don't miss the luxuries of a TV or air-conditioning, but embrace the hammocks on the beach and the night patrols for the female leatherback turtles laying their eggs."

Students return to the United States with a new appreciation of what's available to them here, "along with the fact that they can survive without their (cell) phones for 10 days," Wolber jokes.

Some students who have made the trip have gone on to college to study environmental science, and have returned to Costa Rica through study-abroad programs.

Axup says Wolber "creates lots of opportunities" for students to learn and to have fun, too. In addition to the volunteer work they do, club members also enjoy outdoor activities, such as canoeing, kayaking, cross-country skiing and making maple syrup.

"Our club does a lot for our community and school, but we also take time to have fun and appreciate the wonderful opportunities our community has to offer," Axup says.

Inspiring her students to love and care for the environment is her passion, Wolber says, and she's delighted when she learns that some of her enthusiasm has rubbed off on them.

"We only have one earth," Wolber says, "and we need to protect it for future generations to enjoy."
Annie L. Scholl is a frequent Radish contributor.

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