Academic Stories

Calumet Quarter provides experiential learning opportunity to explore Chicago area’s urban ecology

Through guest speakers and weekly field trips through the Calumet region, students engaged in topics spanning urban ecology to regional planning

On a sunny Friday morning, a group of undergraduate students boarded a bus headed 12 miles south of campus towards the historic Calumet, a region along the southern shore of Lake Michigan of great historic, ecological, and cultural significance.

Spending the day in the field, the small cohort scouted for osprey, explored the wetland, and observed the dune and swale recovery process through guided tours.

The Chicago Studies Quarter Calumet, usually known as the Calumet Quarter, is a signature program of the Program on the Global Environment (PGE) and Chicago Studies and a model for interdisciplinary, experiential learning within the College. It also reflects UChicago’s historic emphasis on making the city an immersive context for deep learning; the Calumet Quarter is an opportunity to study abroad, in a sense, in UChicago’s own backyard.

Extending from Chicago’s South Side along Lake Michigan into Indiana and Michigan, the Calumet region contains a rich distribution of northern boreal forest, wetlands, dune, savanna and prairie. In the past 150 years, human land use and heavy industry have reshaped the region, offering a critical window through which to examine modern-day human interaction with the natural environment.

First established in 2008 by Mark Lycett, former director of PGE and Kathy Morrison, former director of the Center for International Studies, the biennial program capped off its seventh iteration last Spring. It is offered in partnership with Chicago Studies, part of the Office of the Dean which sponsors programs, classes and immersive experiences to make it easier for the College community to meaningfully connect with diverse communities throughout Chicagoland.

This past year’s Calumet Quarter courses were taught by Mark Bouman, Alison Anastasio and Ray Lodato. Students enrolled in one to three Calumet Quarter classes covering different aspects of environmental study, including regional planning, urban ecology, and environmental justice. They then applied their classroom knowledge and skills through course activities and weekly day-long excursions, with Fridays spent in the field observing natural ecology and meeting activists and community members.

“By immersing myself within the Calumet Quarter, I’ve come to understand the Calumet’s seemingly contradictory importance as a center of both industrial activity and ecological biodiversity,” said rising third-year public policy and environmental studies double-major Jonathan Garcia, who enrolled in all three classes this spring and said Calumet Quarter played a large role in attracting him to UChicago.

“The stark juxtaposition between the belching smokestacks of nearby factories and the calm beauty of the area’s wetlands is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and informed my understanding of the topics we discuss[ed] across the three classes,” he said.

“The Calumet region is important from its history of rich native ecosystems to the economic contributions to Chicago’s growth as a hub of commerce, industry, and manufacturing sectors to a place with a problematic legacy of pollution leading to ongoing environmental injustices for its residents. It is also a region of strong environmental activism from its communities,” said Sabina Shaikh, director of the Program on the Global Environment (PGE).

“I’m especially excited about collaborating with PGE on the Calumet Quarter because of the program’s long history of introducing students to this fascinating region of Chicagoland,” added Christopher Skrable, executive director of Chicago Studies and Experiential Learning and assistant dean of the College.

“Calumet Quarter is a great model for the kinds of deeper, longer-term engagements with Chicago communities that Chicago Studies hopes to support across the curriculum and make more available to every interested student in the College.”

Planning for land and life in the Calumet

Chicago native Mark Bouman was perfectly positioned to become an expert on the Calumet region. Spending his undergraduate years at Valparaiso University and later returning to teach at Chicago State University, he is now the Chicago region program director for the Keller Science Action Center at the Field Museum, where he and his team center much of their work around mapping the Calumet region. In 2020, he was asked to join the Chicago Studies program; he brings 27 years of teaching experience to the UChicago classroom.

The course “Planning for Land and Life in the Calumet” united themes of environmental conservation, economic development, cultural heritage, recreation, arts, and education to investigate landscape history and regional planning.

In partnership with the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center, students spent the quarter creating a virtual “Quest” (a crowdsourced production of short, engaging tourism experiences) about a chosen Heritage Area in the region that will be published on the companion website to the Field Museum’s forthcoming exhibit Calumet Stories/National Voices, which opens on Nov. 11.

Along with the Friday field trips, a wide range of guests help informed the student projects. This past year, visiting lecturers included a superintendent from the Indiana Dunes National Park superintendent, an architectural preservationist and the executive director of the Shirley Heinze Land Trust. Combining field work with community voices, the Quest project allowed students with local knowledge to collaborate regionally on a project of national significance.

In designing this course, Bouman hopes his students will take away a sense of fun in discovering nearby places and seeing them rise to a new level of significance.

“Even the commonplace places can tell us so much. When you see success stories like the Ford Environmental Center, the Grand Calumet River, the osprey platform and the Pullman Visitors Center …  [these are] victories for folks who stayed the course, who stuck it out and kept working, kept fighting. The pairing of land and nature and your actual life is right outside your door, and people need to do it in collaboration with each other.”

Urban Ecology in the Calumet

Now in her fifth year of teaching for the Calumet Quarter, Anastasio’s section focused on how fundamental concepts of ecology can be applied to the urban landscape of the Calumet region.

Professor Alison Anastasio examines a native plant on a field trip.
Professor Alison Anastasio examines a native plant on a field trip.

This year, her course paid special attention to how the region has both influenced and been influenced by wetlands. Historically, Indigenous Americans used these areas for plant cultivation, material use and food, but it wasn’t until the 1972 Clean Water Act that policies were enacted to preserve the wetlands.

At the beginning of the quarter, students selected one of the many wetlands in the region from a curated list to investigate why their chosen site was in the condition that it’s currently in. For example, was it part of a preserve, and was there a high level of diversity? Why do people visit this site, and why is it protected? To answer these questions, students conducted archival research and pulled from various class themes, including economics, policy, history, culture, and biology.

Anastasio said she hopes her students will take away not only a greater appreciation for the area, but also a deeper understanding that urban ecology is all around us.

“It’s an interesting lens to think about the trajectory, history, and evolution of this region, while still learning some biology. How has the Calumet developed, but also how have wetlands [developed] in the American mind?” she said.

For Garcia, one of the most notable moments was getting to explore the Sand Ridge Nature Center for Urban Ecology in the Calumet Region.

“We got to tour a dune and swale wetland sculpted by the waters of ancient Lake Michigan as it receded to its current level. As we walked around the site, Professor Anastasio taught us about the plant and animal species we encountered, and we even saw a few deer pass us by. It was a great opportunity to directly interact with nature and observe the biodiversity we learned so much about in class,” he said.

Environmental Justice in the Calumet

Bringing his background in issues of inequality, civil rights and environmental protection, Lodato joined Bouman and Anastasio this year in teaching the third Calumet Quarter class: “Environmental Justice in the Calumet.”

The Environmental Justice practicum allowed students to partner with a local community organization to identify, study and present on an environmental concern that disproportionately affects lower-income people of color in the area. Through key informant interviews and a general population survey, students learned to draft, revise, and implement their survey instruments to work collaboratively to respond to the needs of local residents.

Through this course, Lodato said he hoped students would learn to understand the ways in which environmental ills carry a disproportionate effect on low-income communities of color.

“Students benefit from learning and practicing research methods that they can use after they graduate, hopefully for the benefit of groups doing work to produce just and beneficial policies,” he said. “For our nearby communities, the ability to access the intelligent and hard-working students at the University is an asset that can expand their capacity and further their important work.”

Third-year economics and global studies exchange student (from Yonsei University in South Korea) Ellen Lyoo said she was excited to take the class because she had rarely encountered courses that dealt exclusively with environmental justice. She was also intrigued by the prospect of conducting fieldwork, which would align with her professional aims.

“One of my future goals is to potentially work in the public sector to improve the lives of the socially vulnerable through policy and law,” she said. “Conducting research for this course gave me the opportunity to get hands-on experience in the area of my interest.”

As for this school year, Chicago Studies will continue to offer a wide range of opportunities to engage with Chicago inside and outside of the classroom, including with the Calumet/Southeast Chicago. Events for fall quarter are already listed on the Chicago Studies website.

“To study a place [and] its ecology, to know the people and communities requires true immersion in a place, which can be hard to do for any student or scholar,” said Shaikh. “We hope this affords more than a passing glimpse into a region with so much historical and contemporary significance to Chicago.”