Villa Victoria students Olivia Quinn (left) and Mary Zsolway hold the sign declaring the woodland habitat their class build on school grounds was certified by the National Wildlife Federation.

Mary Zsolway’s boots stood out. They drew strange looks from Villa Victoria Academy teachers when worn in combination with her school uniform, but Zsolway would explain: “I’m going to environmental science class.”

Zsolway was one of the first Villa Victoria students to take the class, which was offered for the first time as an elective last year. Environmental science class gave juniors and seniors at the all-girls, private Catholic school in Ewing a hands-on opportunity to study the stream, soil, plants and wildlife found within an acre of its 41-acre campus.

Their efforts ultimately resulted an area of the campus being named a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, the country’s largest wildlife conservation and education organization.

Every Certified Wildlife Habitat provides natural sources of food, water, cover and places to raise young, and is kept in a sustainable way that incorporates native plants, conserves water and doesn’t rely on pesticides.

A sign on the Villa Victoria campus now recognizes the class’s work, a reflection of the certification that they hadn’t anticipated achieving when the class was designed.

“Environmental science class brought science to life for us,” said Summer Kellers, a senior last year from Ewing who now attends George Washington University.

“Being able to see and touch natural elements made it easier to understand life cycles and how plants, trees, streams and animals are all connected,” she said. “It was fascinating to learn about ecosystems and to understand about microorganisms that we can’t even see.”

Students would study the area on a weekly basis to collect data and complete research. They built bird feeders, bat houses and nesting boxes for the wildlife. They planted a tree, and maintained the plot by picking up litter.

“Honestly, I think I almost underestimated the amount of stuff we’d do outside,” said Zsolway, who also graduated last year and is now a freshman in the Rutgers University Honors Program.

“I didn’t really understand how much we’d do. We got a field journal and we got to go outside and make measurements in the stream,” she said. “We got to walk outside in the stream that I’d never even been to. That was something I didn’t really expect. That was a great example of taking what we learned in the class and putting it into practice. We took measurements so we could really see it.”

The Wildlife Habitat certification came after the fact, said Jennifer Spivey, who taught the class. “The girls knew with all the tests we were going to be running you have to do them in the same spot so you don’t have too many variables, and the girls wanted to do something special with this spot. So I thought, how can we give them something special? Let’s have this as a dedicated wildlife preserve.”

Spivey had 11 students in last year’s class. The elective has been offered again and 12 new students are taking it this year to continue with the work and sustaining the integrity of the habitat.

“You can’t change it,” Spivey said. “You don’t want to add any invasive species, whether they be plants or anything in the stream. The goal for this area was to study it and learn from it.”

She said that this year, the girls are taking the data that was collected last year and they are using it to study long-term changes.

“The girls were never allowed to take any critters from it or take any plants or add anything that wouldn’t be naturally growing there,” Spivey said.

Students at the woodland habitat.

Students looked forward to the class each day. When the weather got warmer, they were out almost every day to study the habitat for 40 minutes at a time.

“If we were going in the stream, we’d keep our skirts on but some people would bring shorts,” Zsolway said. “I did toward the end of the year. Once you get your skirt wet once, you don’t want to do that again.”

At times, the class cut into their lunch period but they didn’t mind. They enjoyed learning outside.

“Figuring out where that stream was relative to everything was a pretty wow moment for me, noticing that it ran all the way through,” Zsolway said. “At times, if we found the stream was blocked, we’d get our hands in there and scoop the stuff out so the stream would flow better.

“The crayfish we saw, that’s probably the No. 1,” she said, adding that she didn;t expect to see them in a stream off the Delaware.

Spivey said she enjoyed seeing the girls enthusiasm for the environment. The students responded well to the curriculum. “I wasn’t sure how the girls were going to take to it. The girls at Villa Victoria Academy, they’re very bright, they’re very open, and they love to get their hands dirty. It ended up not being a challenge to get them interested.”

The stream on the site, which ties in with the Delaware River and the Delaware-Raritan Canal, was the epicenter of the studies.

“We spent a lot of time testing the water flow, the current, the temperature change, the bacteria levels, the pH levels,” Spivey said. “They’d get their wading boots on every day and go out into the stream, and it made it so they couldn’t wait to do the lab. I didn’t have to convince them. They liked being involved, they liked the hands on aspect of it. They liked the challenge of it and typically girls are stereotyped to not want to get dirty or not want to see a bug, but these girls couldn’t get enough of the crayfish, the snakes, any kind of bug they could find, they couldn’t get enough of it. They would have to log what they found and research the different species. I think it was really good for them. They disproved that stereotype of being a girl, too.”

The students came away feeling more knowledgeable about their environment and how to care for it.

“The class changed how I viewed nature because I always admired nature and thought it was beautiful but never understood how intricate it was and how many factors can affect it,” Kellers said. “The class showed me how important it is to respect nature and always do our part to take care of it.”

Feedback was so encouraging that Spivey is teaching it again. She said that this year there would be more of a focus on non-invasive vs. invasive species.

“Over the summer, I attended a workshop and I saw about six different types of beetles that are causing damage to the Ewing township area,” Spivey said. “We didn’t do this last year because I didn’t have the information, but now the girls are going to have to start to identify and see the damage done by these species.

“We’re going to contact that organization because they need Ewing residents to notify them if they see any of these invasive species.”

Villa Victoria is looking to maintain their certified garden while learning more about how they can see the practical application of science lessons they’ve studied like the water cycle and nitrogen cycle to the world around them.

“This class allowed them to take all this prior knowledge and actually apply it and see that it does make sense and it does all come together and it is practical knowledge,” Spivey said.

She said she also feels that it helped allow the help girls that don’t like to go outside and get dirty to get past those boundaries.

“In my opinion, it gave the girls more leadership roles,” Spivey said. “They were each given a task, they put on their boots, they got their data sheet, and they went out and would run tests. With 11 girls I can’t sit with each girl and make sure they run the tests right so they have to really focus and pay attention and put their effort in it and run the tests the right way, which they always did.”

In the end, Villa Victoria came away with a class more appreciative and aware of its environment outside, and a newly certified habitat right on its campus.

Zsolway said that she is pleased that there is a sign recognizing her class’ work toward gaining certification for the habitat .

“To get that certification we had to build some bird houses and some bat houses and that added a component we didn’t know was coming,” she said. “It was fun to use our hands to build some things and paint them. It was fun to do as a class.”