Stark Park's Academy of Collaborative Education (ACE) program has completed a successful first year.

Stark Park's Academy of Collaborative Education (ACE) program has completed a successful first year.

The program has brought together students and faculty from Kent State Stark, Stark State College, Walsh University, Malone University, the University of Mount Union, Aultman's College of Nursing and Health Sciences and local K-12 schools to address the health of the local environment through community-based learning.

The project launched in 2014 after Stark Parks received a grant from the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. The grant, worth $50,000 a year, is renewable for three years. Nick Morris, ACE program director, said local college students from a variety of degree programs have been participating in the hands-on learning project.

“We've seen students of all majors get involved but have had the strongest relationship with students from the natural sciences such as biology, ecology and environmental sciences,” Morris said. “Students have been going out into the field to conduct hands-on, applied scientific research in our parks. The work ranges from collecting data on water quality and biodiversity to surveying park users about why they are in the parks.”

He said the goals of the project are three-fold: To enhance relationships between the Park District and each school; to create new coursework that can only happen through collaboration; and to bring multiple institutions together on projects and courses.

“High school students from the different high schools who were involved with projects earned college credits through Kent State University at Stark's Watershed Studies course which was taught entirely at Stark Parks last summer,” Morris said. “It had support from the Ohio EPA's Environmental Education Fund.”

During its first year, the grant was used to develop ideas of what was needed in the parks and to design projects. The intern and service learning activities were expanded and Stark Parks hosted an undergraduate research symposium.

The second year was used to create a Watershed Studies course at Kent State. The course work involved completing a field-based project to monitor water quality and biodiversity.

For the third year, students will engage in a biodiversity survey in one of the new parks, Fry Family Park in East Sparta.

“Students will survey the land for biodiversity so that we can monitor it after we open the park to the public to see what the impact of having it open to the public will have on biodiversity. Plus, there will be 30 middle and high school teachers implementing water quality units of study into their classrooms this spring,” Morris said.

Teachers are being trained to teach the new coursework by going through workshops at Stark Parks. Morris said one of the goals of the coursework is to teach students problem-solving skills using the local environment.

“Instead of studying pure theory, students will be able to learn through place-based educational coursework,” Morris said. “We're linking teachers to what's happening in Stark County and we're doing so through a partnership with the Stark County Educational Service Center. This program has been a success and we're looking forward to expanding our development of new coursework and of bringing our partners together for more field work."