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A group of Merrillville High School students hiked through the sandy ridges and low wet swales in awe of the plants they saw, the various grades of soil and sand and the small hills and ridges surrounding them.

These students were not at the famed Tennyson Dunes in Australia or the Ipperwash Dune and Swale in Canada but in the urban community of East Chicago.

The students and their teacher, Cheryl Austin, visited the 10-acre dune and swale area at the Global ArcelorMittal Research & Development campus in East Chicago.

A few years ago, ArcelorMittal worked with Chicago's Field Museum to restore the dune and swale, which was created by a glacier that receded from the southern rim of Lake Michigan thousands of years ago. The land contains more than 50 species of plants.

ArcelorMittal researcher Matt Bartz said they welcome students from across the Region to visit the dune and swale and learn about the ecology of the area.

Austin said the daylong trip, which included a visit and hike through the Paul Douglas Center for Environmental Education in Gary, has been in the planning stages for months. Austin said she wanted students to get up close and personal to nature rather than through a book or a digital learning experience.

Also involved in the planning of the trip was Megan Gunn, a 2008 graduate of Merrillville High School who is now the Aquatic Ecology Research Laboratory manager for the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University West Lafayette.

"I wanted the students to get out of their comfort zones and learn about a topic that is very important, which also has careers associated with it that are not traditionally recognized," she said.

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"There are also people working in these career fields who look just like them. I also wanted them to see that someone who was once in their shoes as a student in Merrillville is doing a job like this and it's not out of their reach."

Austin said the trip has many goals including learning the importance of biodiversity through part of the National Lakeshore's many habitats and discovering various species of plants.

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Merrillville High School junior Cuong Vo, a recent immigrant from Vietnam, said this is his first time taking a field trip.

"For me, the day was also a great day to be in harmony with nature," he said. "I hope to participate in many more trips in the future so that I can experience and learn new things. After this trip, I also feel more love for nature and things around me."

Parent Dwan Jackson, who came as a chaperone with her daughter Sharell, said she found the trip looking at nature and the plants and small animals in the area interesting and enjoyable. "I've never been out here before, and I didn't even know this area existed here," she said.

Freshmen Ryan Strug and Theodore Wallzs were in a group with Dunes Learning Center educator Erin Crofton. The said they found the trip to the R&D campus especially interesting because they learned about the PH (potential of hydrogen) levels in the dirt and had a chance to see the dune and swale area.

"I can really relate to this because we've studied it in the books," Wallzs said. "Getting a chance to actually see it is pretty interesting. I've learned a lot today. This area is right here in the middle of an urban area. It's pretty cool."

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Southlake County Reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.