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Vickroy: Summer learning means adventure to two local teens

Ashlee Malek poses during her kayaking trip.  |  Supplied photo

Ashlee Malek poses during her kayaking trip. | Supplied photo

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Updated: August 19, 2013 3:51PM



Ashlee Malek learned quickly that even scientists can watch their best-laid plans go astray, particularly when a bear makes an entrance.

The 17-year-old Andrew High School senior had hoped to conduct fish surveys in the wetlands on Sand Island in the Apostle Islands during her weeklong kayak adventure with the Shedd Aquarium ecologists earlier this month, but a bear scare forced trip leaders to divert the crew of 22 high schoolers to Raspberry Island instead.

“That changed everybody’s project plans,” Ashlee said.

Raspberry Island, which measures 1 mile by three-fourths of a mile, doesn’t have any wetlands, so Ashlee and her partner, in true scientific form, adapted and refocused their work on conducting fish surveys along the rocky beach area.

“It was a fabulous experience,” she said. “I would love to do it again.”

Time was, teens spent their summers hanging with friends, working odd low-paying jobs and dreading the start of school in the fall. But many kids these days are all about taking advantage of the unstructured summer months to learn in fascinating environments.

A few weeks ago, I told you about five students from Eisenhower High School who, thanks to the generosity of folks in the Blue Island community, were off to all points of the western hemisphere on service learning adventures this summer.

Today, we chat with Ashlee, of Tinley Park, and Tom Burns, of Orland Park, who spent one exciting week in the chilly waters off the northern Wisconsin coast conducting scientific experiments.

They participated in Shedd Aquarium’s High School Lake Ecology (HSLE) program, in which students join Shedd staffers for a weeklong kayaking exploration of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The area is known for its majestic caves, sunken shipwrecks and incredible natural beauty. It can also be quite chilly, even in summer.

HSLE provides students firsthand experiences with aquatic science learning. The students can work independently or with a partner to explore the natural history and ecology of the Great Lakes region.

During the adventure, students kayak among the 22 islands, camping on the islands each night.

Tom, who just graduated from Carl Sandburg High school, said the excursion “was completely life changing. It was absolutely amazing.”

He and his partner studied how invasive species are endangering native fishes in Lake Superior. They looked at the toll zebra mussels, round gobis and sea lampreys are having on other fish.

“I learned that Lake Superior is the cleanest of all the Great Lakes and that it does not have a big invasive species problem. That’s why we need to keep studying it — to prevent one from developing,” Tom said.

Though he enjoyed the entire experience, he can’t help but single out one moment as being spectacular.

“We were kayaking to an island along the shore of Bayfield, Wisconsin, when I saw two bald eagles in a nest,” he said. “That’s something you don’t see every day.”

The area they worked in, he said, had a sense of being untouched.

Tom, who played sousaphone in the Sandburg marching band, is the oldest of five boys. He will start college at Moraine Valley this fall. Next year, he plans to transfer to Hawaii Pacific University to major in marine biology.

“My parents raised me to love all living creatures,” he said. He’s considered biology for a long time, but after participating in a work-study program at the Shedd last year, he knew for certain.

The summer kayak trip cemented the deal, he said. “This was a perfect experience for what I want to go into.”

Ashlee said the participants will get together to analyze their data and present post-trip summations to the group.

She plans to study wildlife sciences in college, perhaps studying pre-veterinary medicine or animal physical therapy.

Though Ashlee is active in a number of activities at Andrew, including cross country, track, speech and peer mediation, this was her first journey into the wild.

“My family is not very outdoorsy,” she said. “So this was a very different experience for me.”

She worried that the kayaking would be difficult but, she said, “By the end of the trip, all of us were pros.”

The young scientists wore wetsuits to combat the 38-degree water and learned the importance of leaving no trace of their visit. “We were very careful with our garbage and there was no picking flowers or anything like that,” she said.

They also learned the importance of working together.

“All of us came from different background and different places in the United States. But all of us we’re really into learning from and accepting other people.

“All 22 of us are now friends,” she said.

If you’re a teen who is spending part of your summer vacation learning something cool and unique, drop me a line at dvickroy@southtownstar.com. Maybe we’ll share your story.



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