A photo of the Chicago River with the Chicago skyline in the background as seen from Ping Tom Park. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Chicago River.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Hundreds of high school and middle school students from Chicago and its suburbs will gather at Northeastern Illinois University for the 27th annual Chicago River Student Congress organized by the Friends of the Chicago River


The Student Congress will be held from 8:00 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24 on the University’s Main Campus, 5500 N. St. Louis Ave. in Chicago. The event is free and open to all teachers and students throughout the Chicago-Calumet River watershed. Registration is required.


This interactive, student-led environmental conference will allow students to showcase their river research and advocacy through formal presentations, games and displays depicting their findings on water quality, wildlife, and other river-related topics through formal river-based curricula and field trips to the river. Founded in 1979, Friends of the Chicago River is the only organization solely dedicated to improving the health of the Chicago River system for the benefit of people, plants and animals. 


This is the first time the Student Congress will be held at an institution of higher learning.


“Northeastern Illinois University is proud to be the first university to host the Friends of the Chicago River Student Congress,” said Northeastern Interim President Dr. Katrina E. Bell-Jordan. “We are eager to welcome these students to our University and are confident that the skills they learn at the Congress will help guide them on a path to becoming the next generation of environmental scientists and stewards.”


The theme of this year’s Student Congress is "Streaming Forward to Our Future." Improving the Chicago-Calumet River system can seem like a big task. The Student Congress invites participants to recognize that all big tasks are made up of smaller problems that can be overcome by working collaboratively.


“The Student Congress is a unique forum for the next generation of leaders from across the watershed to explore environmental issues together and learn from each other,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “By bringing the Congress to campus, this year not only will our students be able to interact with environmental professionals to find out what they do and how they got there, this time they will meet NEIU students who can help them imagine these kinds of careers and deepen their understanding of environmental studies.”


Students have unprecedented access to environmental professionals, which this year will include Northeastern professors as well as students enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences who will share their college experiences and river-related course work with participants. Over one dozen organizations and government agencies will participate in the Student Congress, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, and the Illinois Environmental Council. The Congress is part of the Chicago River School Network (CRSN), a free program Friends launched in 1997 to teach students about ecological heath and what they can do to protect it, with the river as a context for learning.


The Friends of the Chicago River Student Congress will also present their 2023 Educator of the Year award to Gerard Kovach, a 6-8th grade science teacher at Decatur Classical School in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Kovach is receiving the award for his creativity, student education and community engagement in the Chicago River Schools Network (CSRN). Kovach holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from National-Louis University and has earned a National Board Teacher Certification. Kovach has also received a Golden Apple in Teaching Fellowship and an MSUrbanSTEM Fellowship.


“As a transplant to Chicago over 20 years ago, I have witnessed firsthand the transformative work done by citizen scientists thanks to the work of Friends of Chicago River,” said Kovach. “Over the past two decades, the Chicago River Student Network has done important work for my students and their families as part of Friends’ water quality field trips and the annual Chicago River Day cleanup. These experiences help to inspire the next generation of community leaders and will continue to educate others to take action to preserve our river and our region’s natural resources.”


Since its founding in 1996, the CRSN has engaged more than 475,000 students and teachers in science, language and history activities at river locations, north and south. During the past school year, the CRSN’s student impact totaled 20,592, including hands-on experimentation and research on field trips to the river with Friends staff and through the hundreds of teachers who have been trained to use CRSN’s river curricula, which is designed to meet state learning standards.


The CRSN is one of Friends’ most diverse and inclusive programs. Public schools represent 90% of CRSN participants. A five-year analysis of the CRSN conducted by Friends in 2019 found that 69% of schools served were Chicago Public Schools, with 53.1% of students from low-income families. During that same period, students served were 37.1% Latinx, 29.6% Caucasian, 20.6% Black and 7.3% Asian.


Top photo: The Chicago River with the Chicago skyline in the background, as seen from Ping Tom Park. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Chicago River.