Take 20 high school students and an old, abandoned gristmill in Bethlehem, Pa.; add a dash of English and history credit; and shake well. That's Liberty High School English teacher Karen Dolan's recipe for a valuable educational experience. "Not only are we learning about our local history, we're making it," Ms. Dolan says of the Illick's Mill restoration project she and her students have been working on since Sept. 2001.
With the backing of the school board, the local Audubon and Wildlands Conservancy chapters, and the mill's owners, Dolan pitched the project as a means to get students involved in serving a community interest.
"The mill is in such a gorgeous location right on Monocacy Creek, and people had been saying, 'Wouldn't that make a nice nature center, if only someone would fix it up?' I thought I was going to have to go on sabbatical to get the project off the ground," says Dolan, who was a middle-school teacher at the time. However, Liberty High School soon invited Dolan to form the Illick's Mill Project class.
"They were writing grant proposals, researching, and archiving the mill's history," Dolan says of last year's group of student pioneers. "This is no classroom simulation."
Dolan's students have forged the nonprofit Illick's Mill Partnership for Environmental Education, with its own board of directors, and have raised more than $250,000 toward the estimated $1 million required for renovations.
This year's group is currently putting together RiverFusion, the second annual festival fundraiser, a gathering of environmentalists and musicians. G. Love and Special Sauce will headline this year's event, which is expected to draw more than 3,000 people.
"It was a drug-free, stress-free Woodstock of sorts. We raised $32,000 toward the project, attracted some attention, and had a blast," says Dolan of last year's event.
As for the students, "Some are worried about how the class will look on their transcript compared to an advanced English or history class," student Katrina Lerch says. "But the experiences I've had with this project seemed to impress the admissions people." Katrina will head to Widener University in Chester, Pa., in the fall to study sports management.
Joshua London and Clayton Chiles, who are currently working on the project's quarterly newsletter and assisting with RiverFusion, like the interdisciplinary approach of the class.
"It's a creative environment, and we see our energy turned into immediate results," Joshua explains. "It's really what you make of it," Clayton adds.
"The kids are learning these skills and getting their credit, and meanwhile, we've turned up some shiver-inducing facts about our little mill," Dolan says.
"I can't wait until the nature center is up and running - then the kids can really see what a wonderful job they've done."