Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance enhances learning for youngsters through its Dunes in Schools program by Erika Zambello
The Seaside Neighborhood School students stepped off the bus to Inlet Beach, surrounded by dunes and facing the beautiful aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To start their yearlong Dunes in Schools program, the seventh graders plant the very sea oats that other students raised the year before, beginning a new cycle of environmental education and restoration.
Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA) initiated Dunes in Schools in 2014 as a complement to the elementary school program called Grasses in Classes. Dunes in Schools educates middle school students about the rare dune lake and barrier island ecosystems that exist in their local environment. Collaborating with school districts, middle school classrooms are provided with the materials and supplies needed to grow sea oats in their classroom. In addition to growing sea oats, students work through a curriculum built around seven modules, including a field trip. The modules build students’ knowledge about the dynamic coastal systems and how their sea oats will benefit this habitat.
During the field trip, students learn not only about restoration techniques, but also how currents and weather patterns affect the beach, as well as native species.
Sea oats are critical to protecting our coastal ecosystems. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, such as for the endangered beach mouse, the roots of the sea oats are critical to the formation and maintenance of the dunes that protect inland areas from storm surges and storms. By beginning each year with a field trip to the dunes themselves, CBA staff and AmeriCorps NWF Environmental Stewards provide first-hand experience students can draw from throughout the year as they learn about coastal ecology.
“The future of our natural areas depend on decisions and actions we make every day,” explains Amanda Briant, CBA education coordinator, “By giving our children knowledge and showing them how they personally can make this world a better place, we are creating the next generation of environmental stewards.”
In addition to Seaside Neighborhood School, CBA teaches Dunes in Schools to students across Okaloosa and Walton counties. Combined with Grasses in Classes and Spat On! for high school classes, CBA reaches nearly 3,000 students every month across education programs.
“By providing estuary and watershed learning opportunities from elementary to high school, we encourage students to build their own relationship with the Choctawhatchee Bay and coastal dune lakes, all of which are the heart and soul of our environment and our economy,” says Alison McDowell, director of CBA.
Funding for Dunes in Schools is provided locally by 30A Coastal Dunes Wines, as well as on a larger scale by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through their Southern Company/Gulf Power 5-Star Grant.
To sponsor a Dunes in Schools program at your local middle school, contact CBA’s Communication Coordinator Erika Zambello at firstname.lastname@example.org.