Local students integrate science with service in nature’s outdoor classroom By Alison McDowell
Local schools are collaborating with the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) to immerse students in nature-based, service learning opportunities right here in South Walton County. Seacoast Collegiate High School and Ohana Institute students learn while giving back to the waterways, wetlands and shorelines that make our area beautifully unique.
The natural wonders of our local area provide an ideal outdoor classroom, where teachers can encourage young minds in scientific inquiry and exploration. With that in mind, the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance built an outdoor experience-focused, hands-on school curriculum around the flora, fauna, and natural processes of Choctawhatchee Bay and Walton County’s rare coastal dune lakes.
Now, CBA is expanding on those programs, and students will have opportunities to give to nature through new service learning initiatives with Seacoast and Ohana. Service learning differs from community service in that students apply academic skills and knowledge to service activities that meet community needs. Environmental service-learning often integrates science with service work.
“Our education programs have always had an element of service learning to them, but we really became interested in student-directed service learning after participating in a National Geographic Explorer Service Learning course this summer. We committed to looking for avenues to allow students to have more scope to direct their service to our local environment,” says Alison McDowell, CBA director. “We want to see what sparks their interest — what they see as worthy of their time.”
It wasn’t long after that decision to diversify educational offerings that two different Ohana Institute instructors reached out to CBA to brainstorm service opportunities for their students. Chad Thurman, science instructor for Ohana High School students, made his marine biology, computer science, aviation, and dive teams available for scientific research. After discussion with CBA staff, Thurman and the students decided to conduct data flyovers and monitoring along Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf. “We have the aircraft, we have the pilots, we have some cameras, and we’d like to help,” says Thurman in speaking of the plan that fits the unique skill sets and interest of his students.
Ohana’s younger set, grades 2-6, chose CBA as their partner organization for their annual days of service. Teachers guide students through learning about the environment that they have chosen to help. For example, leading up to a dune restoration service project in September, students learned all about dune habitats and their importance to our local ecosystem. On restoration day, while students planted sea oats and played learning games, CBA staff helped to reinforce the indoor classroom lessons by providing students with firsthand outdoor experiences of the plants, animals, wave and wind processes that form our beach and dune ecosystems. This service learning model will be repeated as students explore three other local habitats throughout the year. “We are looking forward to the next adventure,” says teacher Missy Herrington.
Seacoast Collegiate High School science teacher Annette Railey
chooses to offer volunteer and service opportunities to students
throughout the year, using them as touchstones to reinforce important
science concepts. Seacoast students have already partnered with CBA in
the International Coastal clean-up this year, helping to remove 500
pounds of trash from local beaches. Currently, the students are learning
about saltmarsh plants, in preparation for a shoreline restoration
event on Choctawhatchee Bay. “Service in the environment helps students
to see how science can be applied to solve problems in the community,”
says Railey. “It’s good for them to be involved in the physical work of
Alison McDowell is director of Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance and South Walton Center of Northwest Florida State College. CBA provides education programs to inspire the next generation of water stewards. Learn more at basinalliance.org.
Visit our website Seacoast Collegiate High School for more information