By Renee Wilson and Kathalyn Gaither
DEP’s Learning in Florida’s Environment (LIFE) Big Cypress Project recently wrapped up its third year of field trips at Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Since the project’s inception, more than 1,200 seventh-grade students from Collier County Public Schools have participated in the program that involves multiple field experiences, service learning projects and a focus on middle schools with the greatest needs.
It takes several staff members and volunteers to provide support and guidance as the students work on the inquiry-based labs. DEP’s South District office and Florida Park Service staff often assisted in what is a truly collaborative effort. Between 10-12 additional staff, including teachers and highly-qualified volunteers, were called in to more effectively engage the students and provide a student to teacher ratio that isn’t feasible in today’s classroom.
This year, about 350 students investigated various aspects of southwest Florida’s estuaries at Rookery Bay NERR while discovering the practice and process of science in the three labs. Students learned about crab anatomy and species adaptations to the estuarine environment, used microscopes to study and analyze the diversity of plankton samples from two distinct locations, and while working on a guided scavenger hunt explored the benefits and survival challenges that nature presented to pioneers along Henderson Creek.
As one of more than 15 sites developed by DEP’s Office of Environmental Education, the LIFE’s Big Cypress Watershed Project has repeatedly demonstrated statistically significant improvement on student pre- and post-test scores and on an overall watershed assessment that ties together their three field experiences. The students’ focus and the smiles on their faces demonstrate an even more immediate feedback about the program’s value.
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