It’s Friday afternoon at Nahant Marsh Education Center, and student interns, satisfied with their day’s work in the field, wrap up their tasks before heading home.
One duo washes off canoes caked with dirt from their morning turtle survey, while others log their findings. The group, which includes six minority college students, discovered nine snapping turtles in nine of the 11 traps scattered around the 265-acre urban wetland in southwest Davenport.
Each student has an individual research project this summer, but all of them monitor turtle traps set to track the reptiles’ population at the former lead-contaminated Superfund site.
Thanks to a five-year grant funded by the National Science Foundation, Nahant Marsh has introduced almost 30 students of color to the natural area over the past four years.
They are among the most underrepresented groups in conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental education organizations, according to Brian Ritter, executive director of Nahant Marsh.
“There are very few minority students going into those fields, let alone taking advantage of our natural resources,” Ritter said. “Unfortunately, it’s overwhelmingly white.”
At Nahant, nine students are assisting researchers this summer, but only the six minority students from Augustana College, Scott Community College, Iowa State University and Luther College are getting paid. They make $10 an hour and work between 15 and 20 hours a week.
The initiative, formed by the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, aims to increase participation of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.
Students who attend any of the 16 two-year and four-year colleges and universities that are part of an alliance, called the Iowa Illinois Nebraska STEM Partnership for Innovation in Research and Education, have access to these opportunities.
The five-year grant, which expires at the end of this year, has supplied Nahant $17,767 annually for a grand total of $88,835.
Besides surveying the nature preserve’s turtle population, students are assessing the marsh’s water quality and plant diversity, Ritter said.
“It’s all increasing our knowledge of this place, and allows us to make better decisions about managing our natural resources down here,” he added.
Open to the public, the protected educational and recreational preserve off Wapello Avenue is owned in part by the city of Davenport and in part by River Action Inc., a nonprofit group devoted to river issues.
As his peers packed up, Zak Nadif, a United Township grad entering his senior year at Augustana College, went back to work.
The 22-year-old biology major is studying the “huge imbalance” between turtles and their predators this summer.
Using a mix of turtle excrement, hay and quail eggs as decoys, he built six faux turtle nests along a sandy trail and installed a couple of motion-sensor cameras nearby in hopes of capturing potential predators on the prowl.
Hyping his experiences this summer, the Morocco native, who grew up in East Moline, said an ecology course at Augustana initially sparked his interest in conservation.
“It’s been awesome to learn the importance of a marsh like this, and of the organisms that help keep it alive,” said Nadif, who plans to attend physical therapy school. “When you think about it, this is our home.”
Liz Schramm, first-year director of the internship program at Nahant, said she also tries to incorporate basic “outdoor life lessons,” including canoe paddling and plant identification, into her teachings.
While there were a record 307.2 million visits to U.S. national parks in 2015, the National Park Service doesn’t track the demographics of its visitors. The most recent survey, however, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population.
Sophia Daniel, a 19-year-old student at Scott who plans to transfer to the University of Iowa in January, said she had never learned proper canoe-paddling technique before this summer.
“It’s a good opportunity to test the waters,” she quipped with a smile. “I really wasn’t an outdoors person before this, but it’s refreshing.”