Semester-long service learning experience in U.S. Virgin Islands

From left, Madison Lenaerts, senior in global resource systems, Sophia Parker, junior in global resource systems, and Maclane Murrell, junior in nutritional science, stand next to the trunk of a large tree in a forest on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
From left, Madison Lenaerts, senior in global resource systems, Sophia Parker, junior in global resource systems, and Maclane Murrell, junior in nutritional science, stand next to the trunk of a large tree in a forest on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The three students spent the spring 2023 semester on the island taking part in the EARTH Program.

By Whitney Baxter, Madelyn Ostendorf, Ann Y. Robinson

Three undergraduate students – Madison Lenaerts, senior in global resource systems; Maclane Murrell, junior in nutritional science; and Sophia Parker, junior in global resource systems – spent the spring semester on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, participating in the EARTH Program.

The program provides Iowa State University students with many hands-on and service-learning opportunities. They can either spend a summer on the island or take part in a semester-long experience working, living and helping in the community.

“Someone in my global resource systems class had done a semester abroad before and was really excited about her experience,” Lenaerts said. “This seemed like a great way to see the world and get a class requirement done at the same time.”

“I wanted to learn more about agriculture and food systems, and I really liked the idea of service learning,” Murrell added. “So, when I saw the EARTH opportunity, I decided it would be the perfect fit for me.” 

The students’ experience began last January with attending a dedication ceremony for the Fork in the Road Station, a residential facility operated by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dana Robes, an Iowa State dairy science alumnus, and his wife, Martha, gifted the facility to the university, ensuring it is available for participants in the EARTH Program for many years to come.

Each student was assigned an individual project to work on throughout the semester, which would benefit the island in some way and help the students learn.

Experimenting with mangrove protection methods

Madison Lenaerts kneels next to a small mangrove tree sapling as she presses the soil around the base of the newly-planted tree.
Madison Lenaerts firmly presses the soil down around a newly-planted mangrove tree. Among the many activities the students took part in, they all got to plant mangrove trees and other shoreline plants to help restore native vegetation on the island.

Lenaerts’ project focused on the island's wildlife — working on the northeast shoreline of St. John to create a natural barrier and prevent the island’s deer population from eating the immature mangroves.

Her project was broken down into three trials: a group with no fencing, a group with fencing, and a group with natural fencing made from trees and brush planted around the mangroves. Lenaerts didn’t have as much success as she hoped for but said that even with failure comes an opportunity for learning.

“Even though most of the mangroves protected by the natural fencing were affected by the deer, three were left alone,” Lenaerts said. “There is a reason for that, and that creates a whole new research question. It’s exciting.”

Improving nutrition via gardening

Murrell was involved with the gardens at the Gifft Hill School and created an educational poster about the produce raised and healthful eating.

“The kids were great, and the staff members were so positive. Every day, classes would help in the garden, which was integrated into the school’s food program. It was easy to see that our work was contributing to the food available for families where many incomes are low and so much of the food is imported.”

Educating islanders about water quality

Parker’s project involved creating communication pieces for Coral Bay’s comprehensive watershed plan. She took a very dense and long plan and paired it down into a more digestible format for islanders.

She also designed flyers to educate residents about the importance of improving the community’s limited water supply. These flyers communicated:

  • how to dispose of hazardous waste and trash properly so it does not contaminate the water supply;
  • the importance of planting natural vegetation; and
  • how to install UV filters for cleaner water.

“It really helped me find a passion for water quality,” Parker said.

Group effort to restore ecosystem

The students joined forces to work on a group project that involved planting mangrove trees and shoreline plants to restore native vegetation and rebuild the island’s ecosystem damaged during hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. Funding for this restoration project came from National Park Service Restoration Grants.

In total, the students planted 843 mangrove trees and other native species. They also participated in three educational events to teach high school students about the plants.

“It was really fulfilling to take care of the plants in the greenhouse, then take some of the more mature plants and transplant them in the forest,” Parker said.

Murrell especially liked working with the tropical spider lilies, indigo and giant philodendrons with their big, broad leaves.

“Every day, we could be working with hundreds of plants in various stages,” he said. “We were often climbing down into steep ravines to revegetate areas that had been damaged during the hurricanes. It was rewarding and really interesting to be close to those micro-ecosystems, where semi-annual fish and amphibian species live in puddles in the forests.”

Takeaways from the experience

As a result of her experience on the island, Parker has added a watershed management class to her four-year plan and is considering attending graduate school.

“It was fun to apply the things I have been learning in my global resource systems classes and learn additional things I would not have just by reading a textbook,” she said.

This trip to St. John was Lenaerts’ first research experience outside of structured lab classes. She hopes to bring what she learned with her as she continues to expand her field experience.

“It’s cool to have this experience outside of a classroom and be able to put forward a research question and hypotheses and objectives, and then just go for it,” Lenaerts said.

Murrell said he was inspired by EARTH Program educators, including Louis Hilgemann, assistant teaching professor of horticulture, and Gail Nonnecke, Morrill Professor of horticulture, who encouraged his recent decision to add a minor in Teaching English as a Second Language to his college resume.

“After this, I imagine that international work, including in China, is likely to be a big part of my future,” Murrell said.